I’m at the gym today, and they’re showing the Channel 2 morning show on the big screen over the juice bar. A title reads, “Who Won the War?,” and above it four men argue. Speakers at every corner of the weight-room blast hortatory music, so I cannot make out what the men say, but I gather from their scowls that they disagree.
The question, “Who won the war?” is one that many people are asking, now that a cease-fire agreement has been signed. Dozens of posts have already been uploaded under that headline, and doubtless more are on their way. After weeks of death, wreckage and fear, it is hard to blame people on both sides for trying to calculate the outcome of their sacrifices. And the leaders on both sides are quick with identical answers: “We were victorious,” a representative in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office told journalists; Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar used almost the same words. Still, understandable or not, “Who won the war?” is a stupid question, and an indecent and dangerous one.
At its simplest, a war that leaves hundreds of kids dead cannot be a victory, not for Hamas, and not for the IDF. But this kumbaya insight, true and important as it is, is only part of what makes “who won the war?” a stupid question.
“Who won the war?” invites us to see this summer’s fighting as a discreet event that has a beginning, middle and end, like a horse race or an election campaign. It implies that we’ve reached a moment, now that the rockets, mortars and bombs are silent, when we can tally up a final score. This is the way Israeli governments have for years tended to view our wars. After each, pundits grade the performance of the generals and of the politicians who gave them orders, and in time a public committee, headed by a retired judge, is established to do much the same. Each war is treated as a discreet event, as a tournament in which we prevail or we don’t.
This attitude was on display while the recent engagement in Gaza was underway, as Naftali Bennett and other cabinet ministers, urged Netanyahu to let the IDF finish the job, reaching a decisive victory. A petition was circulated insisting that the Prime Minister “let the IDF win,” and a Facebook page was launched with the same demand. This slogan, which first appeared in earlier engagements in Gaza, could once again be seen pasted on the bumpers of cars across the country.
All of this misapprehends the war in Gaza and prevents us from seeing what must be done to get from the tragedy of this summer to a better future. The war in Gaza was not a discreet event. It did not begin this summer, and it did not end with the signing of a ceasefire in Cairo. The restoration of quiet, happy relief that it is, is not a conclusion. Nothing is solved.
That said, the violence of the summer, in addition to manufacturing miseries so potent that decades will pass before they fade, leaves Palestinians and Israelis with new opportunities. Likely, the Palestinian Authority will have renewed influence in Gaza. Possibly, the reach and power of Hamas is diminished. The project of rebuilding all that was destroyed in Gaza may offer opportunities for world leaders who have little sympathy for Hamas to develop alternative civic leadership in the region. The greater involvement of Egyptian leaders, also untrusting of Hamas, suggests as well that a future can be hewn for Gaza that is different from its recent past. All of these things, taken together, are not enough to make one optimistic about future relations between Gaza and Israel. But they do show that, rather than disengage, Israel needs to engage with Gaza. If we are smart, energetic, creative and, above all, lucky (all things at which Israelis, at our best, excel), this war may prove to be a turning point toward a Gaza that we can live with and, perhaps, towards a Palestine that we can live beside.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle once suggested that you cannot judge if a person has led a happy life until you have seen how his children turned out. Our success or failure today is sometimes a product of what tomorrow brings. If, in a decade or a generation, Gaza is a thriving part of a thriving Palestine, peaceful alongside a thriving Israel, then it will make sense to ask, “Who won the 2014 war in Gaza?” And, then and only then, the answer will be, “We all did.”