The picture of Ehud Barak and Yassir Arafat at Camp David before Oslo imploded is a lesson in the power of symbolism. Clinton and Barak are seen in laid-back tieless shirts, Arafat in his revolutionary military fatigues and keffiyeh. Even towards the end of the conflict, the Israeli is without a suit, and the Palestinian leader is in his formal military dress, his symbolic outfit. The Arafat who refused to leave his gun outside the UN was the same Arafat who signed the Oslo Accords in his uniform, and at Camp David, he was still in his uniform. As clear as it was, Barak did not appreciate the meaning of that symbol, and Arafat was ultimately the same revolutionary who led the second intifada in his uniform.
Israelis are straight-talking, and Israeli generals are even more direct. It is a trait that stems from this country’s pioneering beginnings; it is less important to focus on the outward trappings of formality and symbolism and more critical to focus on getting the thing built. At a deeper level, perhaps, it stems from our desire to build the real Jerusalem, not the symbolic Jerusalem of the Diaspora.
That disdain for the symbolic is also part of Israel’s historical difficulty in making its case to the world. For a long time, the general approach was doing the right thing on the ground, not the theatrics in explaining a narrative. Yet narrative is essential, formality is necessary, and symbols are key. Formality speaks to people because it reflects something of the thing itself, and without it, people find it hard to appreciate the truth on the ground. More significantly, the Israeli inability to contend with symbols is leading us down a dangerous road in this current conflict.
Since the beginning of the war, there have been suggestions as to how we can achieve the conflicting aims of ending Hamas’ rule and returning the hostages. The conflict is highlighted by recent reports that we know where Sinwar is but cannot attack because he is surrounded by hostages. A suggestion that has been gaining traction again in the last few days is the exile of Sinwar and his cronies in exchange for the hostages and an end to the war. It is a noteworthy proposal because it does help Israel achieve the goals of the war, and to an Israeli mindset, it makes sense. But it is a catastrophe.
Most wars have memorable symbolic moments. The six US marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima, the pulling down of the Berlin War, and the felling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. To an Israeli mentality, these things are trinkets, and what matters is that the US was victorious, that Communism receded, and that Saddam’s reign ended.
Yet wars are fought between two peoples, and Israel cannot afford to see it only from our mindset because, for most people, the symbol becomes the narrative. They are most deeply welded into people’s memories. In our war in Gaza, if we control the Strip and have our hostages, we may have won the battle. But if Sinwar and the rest are allowed the symbol of surviving another day, we will lose the war. For the rest of the world and particularly the Arab world, Sinwar, the emblem will endure. He messed with the toughest, straightest-talking army in the world and walked away to a Qatari palace. The war will stay, and we will pay a hefty price.
Israel has been at this junction before. During the First Lebanon War, Israel allowed Arafat to flee to Tunisia because, after all, that accomplished the stated goals on the ground. Yet, simultaneously, it sent the message that Arafat was still alive and that the cause would last. It meant keeping alive Palestinian hope in the violent struggle in a way that seeing him handcuffed, in a t-shirt, would not have allowed. In this war for our existence, we cannot afford to end with the Hamas leadership walking away alive. We need the radical change on the ground, but we also need the symbolic triumph more than ever.