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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Israel’s War of Decision

Israel’s vengeance campaign could easily become a permanent condition of life in the Middle East.

Tel,Aviv,,Israel,-,April,29,,2023:,Demonstration,Against,Netanyahu's
Credit: Noa Ratinsky

According to Omer Bartov, a strong supporter of Israel and an astute observer of events since October 7, “In brief, Israel seems to have no political plan and a very hazardous military one. It can only blame itself—not least Netanyahu, but also the military leadership—for having arrived at this point.” 

The question for Israelis and the Americans that support them is whether the current war in Gaza is a purely reactive war without an attainable political objective beyond the stunning level of violence that is destroying Gaza and expelling its Arab population. More to the point, is Israel’s desired end state an “Arab-Free Israeli State from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean?”

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If the answer is “yes,” then the Middle East is indeed on the path to a war of decision, a war that will govern Israel’s continued existence and the future extent of American strategic influence in the Near East and North Africa. This suggests that the regional Middle Eastern war that ensues will have little to do with morality and everything to do with power.

To survive a regional war of decision, Israel will have to transform its society into a heavily armed fortress, a nation in arms with the capacity to withstand a long, devastating siege. Israelis knew from Israel’s inception that a Jewish State in the Middle East could only be sustained through force of arms, but transformation into a fortress is new. It turns Israel into a battleship with very limited maneuver room. 

In war and peace, the priorities for a battleship, (or for a modern aircraft carrier), are, in order, to stay afloat, stay afloat, and stay afloat. To stay afloat in a region that is incurably hostile to the Jewish State, Israel must judge what they can achieve with military power (including U.S. military power) against what they may lose in terms of public support.

The radicalization of Israeli public opinion may yet lead to the battleship conversion because today, the emotions resulting from October 7 are overpowering. The danger of allowing emotion, and the extremism that springs from emotion, to determine the conduct of warfare can be fatal. Israel’s vengeance campaign could easily become a permanent condition of life in the Middle East. As always, the historical record is instructive.

From August 1 to October 1, 1944, the Poles fought a terrific but hopeless battle for control of Warsaw against German tanks, artillery, flame-throwers, and automatic weapons. Polish fighters killed an estimated 26,000 German and allied—mostly Ukrainian—troops, but more than 200,000 Polish men, women, and children lost their lives in the fighting. SS, police, and combat engineer formations eventually razed the city to the ground. Yet when the 60-day campaign ended on October 1, 1944, the German Officers reported that the columns of surviving Polish men and women streaming out of Warsaw defiantly sang patriotic songs. The lesson from the Second World War is clear: Killing one’s way out of a problem rarely succeeds.

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If the answer to the fortress option is “no,” then Israelis must end the conflict through political or diplomatic means. For the moment, this option seems unlikely. Implacable enemies do not live comfortably side by side inside a unitary state. However, Israelis should not discount the possibility of a solution. Israelis are, after all, masters of such negotiations, having employed them on numerous occasions

Netanyahu may reject this idea in the belief that Washington will unconditionally support his scorched-earth approach to Gaza and any other potential opponent in the region. Washington’s political leaders do tend to operate without much accountability to the electorate that installed them, but Washington still responds to major swings in U.S. public opinion. The American electorate has already soured on America’s series of failed interventions in the Middle East, and there is growing opposition to Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza. 

At this writing, the United States remains committed to ensuring that Israel will continue to exist, and the Israeli population will not be destroyed, enslaved, or driven into the sea. Still, it is never in the interest of the United States to promote or support actions which are viewed by the world as genocide, ethnic cleansing, or in contravention of international law. Americans have not forgotten the outrages committed by Hamas, but they are also horrified by reporting in the New York Times that more civilians or noncombatants may have died during the last two months in Gaza than in Ukraine in 18 months of high-intensity conventional warfare.

The proportionality of the response in destroying homes and the lives of children is not regarded by most Americans as self-defense. Moreover, it is no secret that Israel's settlements on the West Bank of Palestine are military hedgehogs complete with barbed wire, garrisons, and stowed arms. They are designed to enclose the Palestinian Arabs on their own land and, ultimately, to force them out. 

There is hardly an American or European alive today that does not know the Jews were victims of genocide during Second World War, but this experience does not this confer the right to mete out collective punishment to the people who live in Gaza. The rising death toll of civilian casualties makes it harder and harder for the White House to persist in supporting Israel’s policy of expelling the Arab population from Gaza. 

Given that national survival is Israel’s strategic imperative or top priority, it is hard to imagine how the nation-in-arms policy would succeed. Israel’s economy is already fragile. Without substantial infusions of cash from Washington, the Israeli State will implode. It would also be a serious mistake to dismiss the seriousness of Turkey’s President Erdogan’s vow to bring Jerusalem to justice over “crimes committed in the Gaza Strip,” along with his insistence that Turkish soldiers will one day fight in Gaza.

Ukraine’s President Zelensky believed President Biden and Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg when they repeatedly promised that American and allied support would guarantee Ukraine’s victory over Russia. Ukraine’s future now depends on decisions made in Moscow, not in Washington or Brussels. Netanyahu should take note.

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