The collapse of Israel’s dream palace of normalcy – And how Israel can still achieve a great victory

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Every intelligence officer in the United States at one point in his formal training learns about the great Israeli intelligence failure in the 1973 war.  The lesson was clear, and the same one identified by Roberta Wohlstetter about the great failure of surprise in Pearl Harbor in 1941: a set of ideas, or “conception” can so thoroughly dominate elites and the professional strategic and intelligence communities that it overpowers the increasing pace of evidence and information suggesting an approaching tectonic change.  Israel has just been shaken because it suffered in recent days the second great, indeed catastrophic, “failure of conception,” with dramatic human and strategic consequences.  And it will face a grave national challenge going forward beyond the horrific affairs of massive missile barrages from Gaza because its entire understanding of its situation and the defense concepts that flow from it have collapsed.

And yet, Israel also faces a great opportunity.  A proper response could deliver Israel a tremendous victory, perhaps one its greatest, and leave Israel more strengthened and valued in the long run as an appealing potential ally for others struggling to survive in a dangerous region.

The Dream Palace of Illusions

With respect to Iran’s nuclear program and attempts to establish Iran’s power in Syria, Israel has embraced the original strategy of preemption which served it so well in its first years, to deny an avowed genocidal enemy the means to execute its ambition. And yet, other than Iran, for the last several decades, Israel turned in response to its other enemies from preemption to deterrence, and a “quiet for quiet” formula.  It turned to relying on American support rather than enjoying freedom of action to shape their environment into a less dangerous form. It watched massive stockpiling of missiles in Gaza and in Lebanon, but believed its overwhelming force, and the willingness to use it, guaranteed the success of its reliance on deterrence. Israel believed it could absorb constant attacks on border communities as a below-the-threshold simmering that can be tolerated, much to the chagrin of the people living in those communities.  And Israel believed it could pay blood money to a desperate Hamas via the Qataris to keep them quiet.

Israel believed its technological superiority and splendid defensive measures not only guaranteed defense, but that wars and future missile barrages will be relatively painless and thus could spare it the need to make hard choices of seizing and holding territory which is essential to launching such attacks on the country.  Geography was no longer a military question since superior technology superseded it. Gaza did not have to be dealt with.  Iron dome and the border fence did that.

Israel believed that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was pathetic, but harmless and powerless. Its rhetoric and indoctrination of generational waves of children into martyrdom and hatred for Jews was noxious but not important enough to really do anything about.  It believed that the rhetorical platform of the PA was a stage for an audience of themselves.

It believed the threat to its existence was no longer a realistic aspiration, and that other than Iran and its nuclear program, it was a fantastic internal political elixir for various Arab nations and factions, but otherwise a verbal flare belonging to the realm of rhetoric and dream, not planning and preparation.

It believed that the dangerous rhetoric of the traditional Israeli Arab leadership (as opposed to another upstart Arab party which sought to participate in Israel’s system and to whose leadership a modicum of credit for trying to calm the situation right now is due), which called Israel racist, colonialist and worthy of destruction even from the platform of the Knesset, was simply an electoral device.  Israel could signal its virtue by allowing its enemies to heap bile and spew venom on the very right of the nation to exist at the institutional heart of Israel’s democracy.

And Israel believed it was so powerful that it could yield its rights in symbolically critical places to Judaism, the most foundational of which is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, without being perceived as weak and defeated. It expressed pride over its freedom of worship, but allowed the increasing restriction of Jews and Christians to access and even carry Bibles or non-Palestinian tour group when they ascend to the complex.  Israel did not believe it needed even to monitor the flow onto the Temple Mount of potential weapons of all levels, from rocks to rods to possible firearms, as a matter upon which to insist, and thus yielded on metal detectors.

In short, Israel believed that the massive arming of its enemies no longer required preemption, and the assertion of its national and historical and legal rights to which every Jew prayed every day for 2000 years in exile was to be asserted occasionally at moments of opportunity, not always as an essential pillar of its identity, morale or even existence.

The Collapse

This all collapsed over the last week. Thousands of missiles rained down on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and every other city in the center and south. Many Jews are injured, some killed.  Israeli Arabs rioted – not all or even most, but many – burning Israeli cities from within, destroying hospital emergency rooms, forcing evacuations of Jews from neighborhoods in front of rampaging mobs determined to prosecute a modern-day pogrom, and burning many synagogues to the ground.  Cars were stopped on the highways and the passengers beaten by gangs of Arabs seeking to conduct a lynch.   Many Jews are injured, and some killed.

The Palestinian Authority and its incitement began this cycle of violence.  It did so to avoid losing in an election to Hamas.  The resulting chain of events made Hamas the uncontested master of the street in Judea and Samaria, but the rhetoric of Abu Mazen, the West’s beloved partner for peace, was not harmless.  Indeed, he provided the fuel for a month and a match daily that set off this conflagration.

In Jerusalem, riots now have continued for a month. Many Jews have been injured, but fortunately none killed yet.  Israelis were forced to cancel for the first time since 1967 its Jerusalem day celebratory flag march to mark the reunification of the city.  It barred Jews from entering the Temple Mount. Israel backed down and postponed a court hearing on the eviction of Arab squatters from houses in which they have lived but refused to pay rent for 50 years to the Jews who have held the deed to the land for a century.  It has left unanswered the assertions internationally that Jewish land deeds were less valid than others’ and that the presence of Jews in the city they made holy is an “abhorrent” and “illegal” act, as some major U.S Democratic politicians have said.

Hamas has made clear that this war is about Jerusalem. Israel thought its largesse and tolerance of a constantly eroding status quo, which after 1967 enjoyed uncontested Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount and thus freedom of movement, access, and limited worship by non-Muslims although the actual day-to-day administration was left to the Muslims, but by now was essentially a sovereign and entirely independent Muslim mini-territory akin to the Vatican over which Israeli sovereignty was all but lost and into which no Israeli authority or police can enter without encountering both violence, international crisis and serious international threat of intervention for violating a status quo which has been fluid for decades, but always flowing in one direction: to greater Muslim control. In 2017, Israel yielded even controlling the access to the Temple Mount with metal detectors after Islamists brought weapons into the complex used to attack and kill Jews.  They could not even put remote cameras to monitor who entered the Temple Mount Complex.

War is not a military affair only.  It is ultimately a psychological struggle.  Victory is defined by strategy and perception, not just power, or even primarily by power.  And Israel is losing.  Hamas has defined this war. It has set the agenda.  And it set that definition of victory entirely on the issue of Jerusalem.  It understands that this is the symbolic heart of the Jewish people, and the symbolic dominance over them if they yield.  It has tied the launching of every one of its thousands of missiles onto to Israel through the measure of control over the Temple Mount.  It has become the champion and standard bearer of those who wish to launch a hole in the heart of the soul of the Jewish nation.  And it has declared victory because Israel has shown tenuousness and caution in asserting its rights, or even in maintaining its position in Jerusalem.  The sovereignty of Israel over the area was eroded, and is now challenged in one last push. And Hamas has won the support of Turkey, which talks of sending troops to help fight the Jews in Jerusalem, and Jordan, who is ostensibly at peace with Israel, and of course Iran as well. It is the modern Saladin laying siege to the last vestiges of non-Muslim control over Christendom’s and Judaism holiest places on earth.

But Israel has convinced itself that somehow a path to deterrence can still be found, and that this is an issue of power and military strength, not a psychological struggle of civilization.  It has convinced itself that the answer to this attack and dangerous collapse of every sense of security held dear by the Israeli people lies in Gaza.  But Israeli strategy right now is like the proverbial man who lost something in a dark place, but looked for his lost object under the street lamp because the light was better.  Gaza is not where Hamas can be defeated, because Hamas is no longer about Gaza, but about Jerusalem, and about the heartland of the holy land north and south of it, the hills of Judea and Samaria and the other holy cities of Judaism, Christianity and Samaritanism — Hebron and Bethlehem, of Shiloh and Mount Eval. Hamas rules and represents the Arabs in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, not the illusionary Western crutch of comfort of the Palestinian Authority, the PLO and Abu Mazen, whose very escalation they triggered to avoid humiliating defeat has ironically left them even more rejected and irrelevant to the point of invisibility.

The Path to Victory

Israel can still win this war, indeed win a great victory.  A defeat of Hamas in Gaza involving the capture and demise of many of its leaders is essential. It is dubious that Israel can evince enough strength just from the air, so it is likely that ultimately even a ground incursion must take place. To be clear, this defeat must be shocking in its extent and power, and its parameters will certainly cause great anguish in the circles of rarified Western elites and governments detached entirely from the dynamics of this problem. But Israel cannot allow itself to end this problem incompletely because of these reactions, since it will just get worse with every round, which will come earlier and earlier every time. This will not be easy, but the unwillingness to deal with this problem decisively for fear of an incursion has allowed this moderate problem for the last decade to become a great problem whose elimination is now inescapable. And a symbolic return to at least a piece of Gaza, perhaps the northern area where the Israeli towns were before 2005, is necessary to make defeat geographically visible.”

And there must be repercussions for the PA and Abu Mazen. Arsonists cannot be allowed to walk away from the smoldering ruins of their handiwork with smiling impunity.  In the least, the two-state concept anchored to the idea that somehow this weak construct and man can or wants to deliver peace must be challenged by Israel now formally. The PA has exposed not only its own weakness, but its willingness to reengage in conflict at will. Abu Mazen did not eschew violence, but held it always as reserve in his pocket.  The arsonist should no longer be invited to dinner.

Still, Israel must know that while Hamas in Gaza must now pay a deep and humiliating price, and that the Abu Mazen must be held accountable, the only path to victory is to reassert its rights over what has been the center of the Jewish nation for 3800 years, Jerusalem.  Hamas has defined this war on its dominance and de facto sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the idea that it can through threat simply void Jewish land deeds. So, to win this war, Israel must win on those two issues.

To do so, Israel must establish some sort of presence on the Temple Mount. It need not be dramatic or brutal, but symbolically powerful:  a permanent police outpost, or an offer to the Christians to join a Jewish—Muslim council that will now sit above the Muslim Waqf to oversee and limit its activities on the Mount. Or it can create a small Christian and Jewish prayer area in a discreet corner of the Mount.

Perhaps it might involve rearranging the character of the current Waqf (the Muslim Religious Trust that administers the Mount) and turning over its authority to a committee that is managed by another Arab country at peace with Israel like the UAE or Bahrain.

Sadly, Jordan had traditionally played a helpful role in this, dominating the Waqf with key allied families, but it has in recent years become so weak and floundering in its outlook that it has undermined its own traditional position as such a leader. Indeed, this reliance on Jordan as the stabilizer of the Palestinians was yet another conceptual foundation of Israeli strategy that now has collapsed. It could still participate, but Muslim leadership on this issue must pass to a more energetic and coherent national representation.

There is no shortage of ideas, but whatever action taken must be a modest but highly symbolic act that establishes with great clarity that Hamas has lost control, that the Jews and Christians have rights and will now have a permanent presence on the Temple Mount, that Israeli sovereignty is reasserted with control and some sort of police presence, and that moderate Arab states at peace with Israel now will dominant the managing of Muslim assets in the holy places, not the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.

Israel has the power to win. It is technologically superior and vastly better trained and armed that its enemies. So, it need not fear from the shrill voices coming from Tehran or Ankara. They are not in the same league as Israel if it came to an intervention by them. Their intervention and failure would only increase the size of an Israeli victory.

But again, war is not about power primarily, but about the struggle of perceptions and a battle over one’s soul. Israel is at a crossroads, and the choices it has all involve a price, and it is a dear price in some form or another.  But it can emerge from this crisis with a victory as great as 1967 if it abandons the mentality of management, and instead operates under a vision and grasps a deep understanding about the struggle over the soul defining this war, and that its victory can only emerge from the heights of Jerusalem, not Hades’ tunnels in Gaza.

David Wurmser

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