Will Israel pursue peace or chase the illusion of victory?

Military might alone has rarely been enough to end conflicts. History shows that there is no military solution without a political one.

Nesma Moharam

Will Israel pursue peace or chase the illusion of victory?

In the early days of the war that broke out on 7 October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the conflict to come was a “second war of independence”. Netanyahu was referring to the first Arab-Israeli war, which saw Israel being attacked by its neighbours hours after declaring its independence. In what he certainly thought to be a Churchillian speech, Netanyahu said Israel would fight on “land, at sea and in the air” and would secure “total victory”.

The speech and sentiment can be brushed aside as just another piece of “Bibi theatrics”, but it did capture a feeling of existential anguish that few outside of Israel may have understood. To external observers, while the 7 October attacks were unprecedented, they did not threaten the very existence of Israel. Hamas had shattered Israel’s sense of security, but the risk of a serious Israeli defeat was never a possibility.

But to Israelis, this felt exactly right: Hamas fighters had broken into towns and border communities, gone one by one in every house to kill and maim. There is no deeper existential fear than the fear of seeing your own home being invaded. This primal fear was exactly what Hamas sought to ignite when it broke out of the wall confines of Gaza and attacked multiple Israeli towns—some of which are the last strongholds of the Israeli peace camp—filming it for the world to see.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the current crisis Israel faces with Iran. The Islamic Republic has built a “ring of fire” around Israel: Tehran has surrounded the country with proxies such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraqi Shiite militias. Using the fight against Israel as a rallying cry, Iran aspires to be a regional hegemon—one that has little to do with Palestine or the interests of the Palestinian people which are better represented by other countries in the region.

Iran can be seen as slowly tightening the noose around Israel. This is despite Iran’s own weaknesses, including the fact that the regime itself is despised by many Iranians. To make matters worse, during the night of 13 April, Iran launched more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel, in response to an strike on its consulate in Damascus believed to be carried about by the Jewish state, marking another escalation in a long list of escalating security headaches for Israel.

REUTERS/Amir Cohen
An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel April 14, 2024.

Read more: After months of Israeli provocations, Iran finally strikes back

Iran’s willingness to cross the line and directly attack Israel may be viewed, in that sense, as a dramatic and dire warning that Tehran feels confident enough in the success of their regional project that they think has tied down Israel in so many areas that it will not respond.

If a full-scale confrontation with Iran were to break out, Israel is capable of carrying out attacks in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. To the average Israeli, this may evoke the first decades of Israel’s existence, when the country faced conflicts on all fronts, bringing again this “existential fear” that re-emerged on 7 October.

The threat that Iran may turn nuclear—a threat a high-ranking IRGC official recently referred to when he warned Iran could “review its nuclear doctrine” if Israel attacked its nuclear programme—coupled with Tehran’s longtime pledge to “erase Israel from the map” may also fuel the sense that Israel is fighting for survival.

Two faces of same coin

Existential fear and exceptional strength have been two faces of the same coin for much of Israel’s history. Israel’s former PM Golda Meir once said, “Our best weapon is that we have nowhere to go”. Israel’s psyche has been built on this notion that its mere existence was always threatened and never a given. One of the ideological founders of the Israeli right-wing camp, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, summed up this idea when he spoke of the “wall of fire”, or “Iron wall” Israel would have to put up to survive in a hostile region.

But Israel has also evolved past this stage. It is no longer a country isolated from the region—at least it wasn’t on 6 October. Acting as if Israel’s existence is always on the line deprives Israel of an array of responses that may be smarter in the long term or even in the short term.

Acting as if Israel's existence is always on the line deprives Israel of an array of responses that may be smarter in both the short and long term.

Existential fear requires one thing and one thing only: Victory. If it is a matter of survival, then enemies must be crushed. It is in this framework that Netanyahu has placed the Israeli campaign that followed the horrific 7 October attack. He has again and again promised what he calls "absolute victory" against Hamas. Even without looking at the situation in Gaza, "victory" of the kind Netanyahu is seeking rarely materialises.

Read more: Netanyahu's 'absolute victory' in Gaza looks increasingly unlikely

In recent history, military might alone has rarely been enough to end conflicts, and the story of recent conflicts is one that clearly highlights that the concept of victory itself has become a distant illusion. There is no military solution without a political one.

It is still too early to gauge, but whether the 7 October attacks see Israelis and Palestinians on an even bloodier track or give new life to a dying peace camp (on both sides) will largely depend on how this unprecedented round of violence will be viewed.

If Israelis think that they were just one security operation away from victory, if they say, "Had we just gone in Rafah", then they will have missed a big piece of the puzzle. Similarly, if Palestinians think that another, "more successful" 7 October would have led to victory over Israel, they will be on track to repeat the mistakes of the past.

This also shows that the struggle for Israel's future is unfolding, first and foremost, at home. Domestically, Israel has faced a grave crisis of identity, with mass protests triggered by Netanyahu's attempt to curtail the power of the judiciary. 

Protesters with placards of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with Hebrew slogan 'We will not forget, we will not forgive' during a march against government's justice system reform plans in Tel Aviv, Israel, 25 March 2023.

With his judiciary reform, the Israeli prime minister is altering a very delicate balance between the two pillars of Israel's identity—namely, its Jewish and Democratic nature. If allowed, these reforms will erode Israel's democratic nature in favour of its Jewish character, isolate Israel on the regional and global scene even more, and give more grounds to those inside Israel who claim that the "world is against us".

One camp postulates that Israel is a Jewish State first, prioritising the sectarian nature of the country over the need to include all Israelis. This is the same camp that advocates for "total victory" and the crushing of Israel's enemies.

The other—a long-dormant minority—has started to realise that democratic institutions need to be protected and that security is too narrow an objective. The outcome of this domestic struggle will define how Israel handles all of its (many) external issues.

As Israel marks its 76th year as a state, its main challenge might not be the enormous security crisis it faces but the need to recognise that, for all the very real threats surrounding it, it also has options. Its main goal should no longer be "victory"; it should aim for something more ambitious.

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