Why Israel might be Athens and Bibi might be Pericles (and why that might not be a good thing)

As analysts and politicians argue over who “won” the most recent battle in Israel’s very long war of survival, let’s begin with a simple premise – if you’re on the side arguing this question, then it most likely wasn’t yours. Instead of wasting scarce time and energy, Israel must focus on preparing for the next battle. And yes, there will be a next battle, likely sooner than one hopes. And, tragically, there will even be another one after that. Hamas isn’t going anywhere. Nor are they abandoning their genocidal agenda. Neither the UN/EU/Messiah will swoop in to demilitarize Gaza. As for those who cling to the idea that “moderate” Palestinians will settle the conflict, President Abbas’s recent vehement rejection of Egypt’s offer of Sinai land to settle the “refugee” issue throws still more water on that already extinguished flame. So instead of dreaming, prepare. Successful preparation depends on understanding why Hamas fought so long and so hard, why Israel’s overwhelming air power proved so ineffective a deterrent, and the inherent weakness of Netanyahu’s “Quiet for Quiet” strategy.

One part of the answer to these questions lies not in the recent battle, but in the distant past. Saul Bellow maybe wasn’t the first author to analogize Israel to both Sparta and Athens, but he may have been the first to mean it as entirely complimentary. Since 1976, others have taken up Bellow’s argument, albeit usually to support only one side of his analogy. Israel’s detractors paint her as a fortress-state, devoid of freedom and joy. Supporters liken the state to Athens’ Golden Age under Pericles, a mecca of culture, democracy, and inquiry. Now anyone who knows anything about ancient Greece (or has wandered Dizengoff or King George) knows that either analogy is deeply flawed. Yet it is in the most famous conflict between those two ancient city states that one finds an important truth: Netanyahu is leading Israel in a manner evocative of Pericles’ Athenian war strategy. That may sound like a compliment. Unfortunately, the resemblance is to a strategy that very nearly destroyed Athens.

To recap very briefly, in the 4th century BCE, Athens under Pericles was riding high as the most sophisticated city in the Greek world and, through their navy, the Aegean’s greatest power. Their rival, Sparta, feared of Athenian dominance. Sparta saw war as their best option. War made real sense: Sparta boasted the most formidable army in Greece. Sparta’s prowess presented Pericles with a problem: Athens could never defeat Sparta on the battlefield. What to do? So Instead of fighting, Pericles convinced the Athenians not to waste their young men on unwinnable battles. Athens would withdraw behind the city’s “Long walls” and supply themselves by sea. Yes, Sparta would pillage Athens’ vineyards and farms outside the walls. Within, however, the Athenians would remain safe. Pericles assumed that once the Spartans realized that they could neither penetrate the walls nor persuade the Athenians to come out and fight– and this realization might take years – they would accept “reality” and sue for peace. Thus, Pericles thought, the status quo would continue: “Quiet for Quiet” would be achieved.

In the end, however, Pericles strategy failed. It failed for two reasons: first he imagined that the Spartans shared his worldview. He did not consider Spartan cultural priorities. It is no exaggeration to say that Sparta existed to make war. Their city’s entire culture was based on military supremacy. In Sparta, every resource, law, and strategy was directed at making the Spartans the world’s most feared fighting force. Expecting Spartans to tire of war was to expect them, in a very real sense, to stop being Spartans. Second, Pericles strategy was almost entirely defensive. It handed Sparta near all the initiative. Having nothing to lose, Sparta could (and would) fight indefinitely. Athens gave them no incentive not to fight. Sparta might not ever win, but nor would they ever lose. And year after year, Sparta invaded the region around Athens and attacked Athens’ allies, practicing their well-honed craft, as the Athenians remained behind their walls.

Only after Pericles died, did Athens shift strategies. Under new leadership, Athens stopped relying solely on defense. Sparta could maintain its highly trained warrior citizens, who neither traded nor tilled, because of an enormous population of state-owned slaves, Helots. These Helots vastly outnumbered the Spartan citizenship. The Helots raised the crops that fed Sparta’s invincible army. Helot revolt had long been Sparta’s greatest nightmare. Exploiting this weakness, Athens established a base on the tiny island of Sphacteria. From their base, Athens fomented rebellion among the Helots. These revolts put Sparta’s very survival at risk. Now Sparta had something to lose.

Many mistakenly believe that battering Gaza from the air led to the recent ceasefire. Since the ceasefire came with terms very similar to those Hamas rejected just weeks earlier, they reason that Israel’s strategy brought victory. Based on this analysis, they assume that what brought “victory” once will do so again.: “Quiet for Quiet” can be maintained. Yet this analysis sees reality only from Israel’s perspective. It wrongly assumes that Hamas’s claims of victory are either delusional, propaganda, or both. Yet for Hamas, victory came not at the negotiating table, victory came in the streets. Before the fighting, their popularity languished in the abyss. Now Hamas rides high in the polls; surveys show that they would handily outpace Abbas’s PA, not just in Gaza but in the West Bank. On top of these momentous gains, their financial spigots are again open, as seen in their ability buy support among aggrieved Gazans. As for Hamas disarming, this impossible suggestion lets their leaders stand tall “resisting” an idea that no one will ever enforce. For Hamas, that is victory.

As Athens’ long walls created the illusion of neutralizing Spartan prowess, so Iron Dome lets some imagine a neutered Hamas. Yet Hamas shouldn’t be mistaken for being their rockets, any more than “Quiet for Quiet” should be mistaken for peace. Hamas exists as a zealous belief, the goal of which is destruction of the Jewish State. Once they perused this same goal blowing up buses and cafes. Now they seek to accomplish the same end with tunnels and rockets. These are means to an end and that end is murdering Jews. Expecting Hamas to surrender their Raison d’être because of Israel’s ability to level Gaza or Iron Dome’s effectiveness is as logical as expecting Sparta to surrender before mere walls. Nor does Hamas respond to the pressures that might push a state actor; no amount of property destroyed or low level fighters killed will bring them to heel. Indeed, such destruction only further enhances their popularity. So what then is the solution?

Taking a lesson from post-Pericles Athens, Israel must locate the point of pressure that will give the leaders of Hamas pause. Some imagine only the reoccupation of Gaza will do. However, there are other possibilities. Senior Hamas figures might be made to understand in the next confrontation that they, and not just low level fighters, will find their way to paradise. From five star luxury, Khaled Mashal sows the wind with violence. One imagines he would be far from eager to find himself reaping that whirlwind. Another possibility is convincing Hamas’s Qatar pay masters that they cannot fight a proxy war with Israel without paying a price. Doha too has its Helots. Whatever the strategy, Israelis must recognize the flaw in Netanyahu’s Periclean “Quiet for Quiet” strategy: safety borne of “long walls” is at best ephemeral. It is as worst delusional. In 1973, Israel almost paid the ultimate price for such over confidence. Israel must regain the initiative. Only by finding Hamas’s Helots, will real peace be achievable. Security requires a bold new strategy.

About the Author
A recovering political consultant, Jordan Magill is a teacher and freelance writer in the Washington DC area.
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