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How Long Can the Israeli Goliath Last?

In an age-old irony, it's Israel that's the giant now, with the Palestinian David eliciting all the sympathy.
Protest against US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital

The year was approximately 1063 B.C., and in the Valley of Elah, about 15 miles to the southwest of Jerusalem, the ancient Israelites under the command of King Saul pitched camp in anticipation of a coming battle with the Philistines. 

From the enemy lines came forth a warrior whom the book of 1 Samuel 17 records as “six cubits and a span” (nine feet, nine inches) tall. Antagonizing the Israelites, he shouts, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other!” This continues for a biblical 40 days, paralyzing the Israeli camp with fear. The warrior’s name was Goliath, and we all know what happened next.

A young shepherd by the name of David arrives on the scene and commits to delivering the giant Philistine into the hands of his God and king. Eschewing Saul’s offer of armor, shield, and weaponry, David decides to meet Goliath in singular combat armed only with his shepherd’s staff and sling. Prior to his attack, David stands firm in his belief that his condition of physical inferiority is a strength. For “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

“David and Goliath,” by Osmar Schindler, 1888. (public domain)

The rest is history. But was this story accurate as told in the Bible? Maybe. Recent archeological discoveries in Goliath’s alleged hometown of Gath have uncovered ruins that date back to Old Testament times and are considered “unusually large” for the period in which they were built. Regardless of historical accuracy, though, one thing is certain: the story’s authors knew how to put their audience on Israel’s side. Unfortunately for modern Israel, however this phenomenon is playing out again, but the roles this time have been reversed. The Palestinians are now David, and Israel is Goliath. This has deep implications for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that do not bode well for the Jewish state. 

Why is weakness a strength? Why do we inherently root for the underdog? Something about the little guy overcoming the odds and defeating the powerful resonates deeply in all of us. There is a moral dilemma to this dynamic, one that plays out in every conflict large and small. Each side always considers itself on the moral high ground. Indeed, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson recently criticized the relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump, claiming that the Israeli government’s consistent moral framework is always “we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys.” 

How does morality play into a conflict? Doesn’t it only matter that you kill more of the enemy than he kills of you? Yes and no, and contrasting two conflicts in Israel’s recent history answers both the yes and the no. The founding of Israel and the subsequent wars with her Arab neighbors left the Jewish state in a continuous position of tension. Following a short artillery and air engagement with Syria over raids by exiled Palestinian guerillas, Egypt mobilized against her nemesis in 1967. President Nasser sent six divisions to the Sinai, removed the UN peacekeeping force, and closed the Straits of Tiran south of Israel. Israel struck first, fearing annihilation.

As Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld states in The Transformation of War, “for six glorious days war was Israel and Israel was war.” The result was a smashing victory for the Israelis, who lost around 800 soldiers, as opposed to 20,000 for Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The Sinai peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights were added to Israel’s territory.

Compare this short war with another conflict that played out in 2006. For 34 days, Israel battled Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in response to the Shia terrorist group’s killing and capturing of several Israeli soldiers in cross-border raids. Israel launched a massive air and artillery campaign, followed by a ground invasion in late July. When the ceasefire was signed on August 14, both sides claimed victory, but as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt noted in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, “it was clear to most independent experts” that “Hezbollah had come out ahead in the fight.” The IDF chief of staff resigned, and an Israeli government investigation rebuked the planning and handling of the campaign, stating that the military had “pursued goals that were not clear and could not be achieved.” 

Worse still, the air, artillery, and naval campaign killed an estimated 1,183 Lebanese (a third of them children) and devastated the country’s infrastructure. These actions drew strong condemnation from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for causing “destruction on a catastrophic scale.” During the last three days of the war, the IDF fired over one million cluster bombs into southern Lebanon, “saturating the area.” The leader of an IDF rocket unit called these actions “insane and monstrous.”

War can still be won by being nasty and short, as shown in the first Gulf War, but time is not on the side of the powerful. Escalation by a powerful state against a poorly equipped adversary almost always works to the advantage of the weaker side. Van Creveld compares this situation to an adult who “administers a prolonged, violent beating to a child in a public place.” Observers will sympathize with the child and intervene, regardless of its prior behavior.

With the Palestinians, the position of weakness is even more extreme. Israel dominates the lives of 3.8 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, controlling air, land, and sea access, in a situation that’s been compared to “living in a cage” by Swedish foreign minister Jan Eliasson. Despite numerous American attempts to secure Palestinian statehood and resolve the conflict, the present situation seems worse than ever. 

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has made it clear that Israel will be supported through thick and thin. And the world has slowly but surely begun to take notice. The BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), initially confined to college campuses and Palestine, spilled into the national news when Democratic lawmakers Ilhan Omar and Rashida Talib spearheaded a movement opposing bills aimed at criminalizing support of BDS. Some Republicans, namely Senator Rand Paul, have opposed those bills, too, on free speech grounds.

Recently, after the congresswomen were denied entry to Israel because of their support of BDS, liberal Jewish journalist Peter Beinart defended their stance. Speaking on a CNN panel, he openly sympathized with the plight of the Palestinians, claiming their treatment by Israel constitutes an “indefensible denial of basic human rights.” Fellow panelists attempted to tie support for Palestine to terrorism, a common tactic. But terrorism in that part of the world is nothing new. Israel’s defenders tend to forget or are ignorant of the fact that beginning in 1937, the militant Zionist group Irgun was responsible for placing bombs in buses and large crowds. One of its leaders during Israel’s war for independence, future prime minister Menachem Begin, was referred to by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol simply as “the terrorist.”

Modern Israel is no longer a weak state in danger of annihilation. The IDF is highly motivated, trained, and funded. Emboldened by the financial and moral backing of the United States and powerful lobbying groups, its treatment of Palestinians and other enemies has become steadily more severe. 

With recent elections still contested, it remains to be seen whether these policies will continue. But militarily, Israel’s position is not tenable. You can win at the tactical level and rack up a higher body count, but still lose the war. As frequent TAC contributor and military historian William S. Lind notes, “in the 3,000 years that the story of David and Goliath has been told, how many listeners have identified with Goliath?” 

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.