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A Traumatized but Reborn Israel Faces Terrifying Choices

What happens on the battlefield in the coming weeks and perhaps months will help determine the next iteration of Israel.
[additional-authors]
October 18, 2023
IDF soldiers drive in military vehicles on October 15, 2023 in Sderot, Israel (Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Shortly after the Hamas massacre,  I was driving on the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In place of civilian traffic, flatbed trucks transported tanks and carloads of reservists headed to their units. I spotted a banner hanging across an overpass, imprinted with a slogan denouncing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his assault on the judicial system. It felt like the remains of a long-forgotten election campaign.

Only a week earlier I’d been out in the streets, along with hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens, waving large Israeli flags, trying to save our country’s democracy. Now we are trying to save our country.

Yet only a week earlier I’d been out in the streets, along with hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens, chanting “Shame!” and waving large Israeli flags, trying to save our country’s democracy.

Now we are trying to save our country.

Before the massacre, I’d feared that the Netanyahu government had done irreparable damage to our ability to function as a cohesive people. Now, the horror of our intimate encounter with evil has once again brought us together.

Despite Netanyahu’s initial resistance, public pressure gave him no choice but to form a unity coalition. The government has suspended all legislation not connected with the war effort. It is inconceivable that, once the fighting is over, the Israeli public will allow a fatally discredited Netanyahu to revive his judicial coup.

Mourners attend a a funeral held for the Kutz family, killed last Saturday at Kfar Aza kibbutz on October 16, 2023 in Gan Yavne, Israel Amir Levy/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the pilots who had announced they would not serve an anti-democratic government are now flying sorties over Gaza. The Brothers in Arms movement that had supported their refusal is helping shell-shocked residents along the Gaza border with food, clothing and psychological counselling – taking the place of government ministries that are barely functioning, a result of the coalition’s systematic replacement of professional civil servants with incompetent political hacks.  Astonishingly but not surprisingly, the government that failed to protect the residents of the Gaza border communities while they were being massacred has effectively abandoned the survivors.

This is a joyless unity, imposed on a nation whose bitter divisions will take years to heal. Never has the country gone to war with so many Israelis faulting each other for catastrophe. Those of us who oppose the government blame it not only for the disaster of failing to secure the Gaza border, but for dividing the country over the past year, signalling a fatal weakness to our enemies. Netanyahu ignored the urgent warnings of the IDF about the impact of his judicial policies on the cohesiveness of Israeli society and of the army itself, even refusing to meet with the IDF Commander-in-Chief Herzi Halevi. Just days before the attack, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid went on television to warn that, based on briefings he’d received from the military as head of the opposition, Israel was facing a major and perhaps imminent security threat on its borders. Netanyahu ignored all those warnings, insisting on moving ahead with his divisive agenda, as though nothing was more fateful for Israel’s future than restraining judicial overreach. And now of course, the leader who is always claiming credit for national achievements, whether or not they are his, is acting as though someone else were prime minister on October 7. 

Keren Sherf Shem holds a photograph of her daughter Mia Shem, during a press conference October 17, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Leon Neal/Getty Images

For their part, the shrinking minority of government supporters blame the protest movement, and the thousands of reservists who’d declared their refusal to serve an authoritarian government, for emboldening Hamas. The commentators on the pro-Netanyahu television station, Channel 14, which for the last year has portrayed government opponents as traitors, have become increasingly desperate in trying to deflect blame for Israel’s worst-ever security disaster on to the protest movement. Listening to their vitriol, I could only imagine what they would be saying if the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history had happened on the watch of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

What Netanyahu’s defenders miss is that, had the protesters not prevented the government from destroying Israeli democracy, we would never have been able to go to war again as a united people. 

Most of us who opposed this government over the last year know this is not the time for score-settling. The reckoning will come the day after the war, and it will be furious. 

Even so, outrage erupted at funerals for the massacre’s victims. “I didn’t want to speak about politics here today,” said Ofir Shai, a young man eulogizing his brother, and proceeded to demand that the entire cabinet resign, while many in the crowd vigorously nodded. When Environment Minister Idit Silman tried to visit the wounded in a hospital, she was taunted by outraged family members. A doctor joined in, shouting, “You’ve destroyed our country! Get out of here! Now it’s our turn to take control! Left-wing, right-wing, one united nation, without you! You’ve ruined everything!”  Silman quickly left.

Graffiti on a wall on October 17, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Leon Neal/Getty Images

This is the moment of the maturation of the Israeli people. An effectively leaderless nation is mobilizing and inspiring itself.  We share a rage against our enemies far greater than the rage we feel toward our leaders. 

In the four decades since my Aliyah, I’ve experienced multiple versions of Israel. There was the Israel I moved to in 1982, when inflation was raging close to 500% and the economy seemed headed toward collapse; and then abruptly, a decade later, the “startup nation” emerged, and Israel became a world center of high-tech innovation. There was the Israel of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, when suicide bombings on buses and in cafés scattered severed limbs on our streets and we hid in our homes, fearful of congregating in public spaces. And there was the Israel of the Abraham Accords of 2020, when parts of the Arab world suddenly opened up to us, and even Saudi Arabia, our most implacable Arab enemy, began signalling its acceptance of a Jewish state.

A new, as yet unimagined, Israel has just been born. The Second Intifada transformed Israeli politics for a generation, destroying the once-formidable left and ensuring the seemingly invincible rule of the Likud. More and more Israelis turned to religion for comfort, challenging the nation’s secular ethos. A thousand Israelis died during those four terrible years – and 1,400 died on October 7. 

The impact of this massacre on Israel’s politics and psyche will likely be even more profound. That could mean a shift further rightward, or else, given the widespread revulsion toward this government, a shift to the moderate center, allowing Israeli society to begin to heal. What happens on the battlefield in the coming weeks and perhaps months will help determine the next iteration of Israel.

We know there are no good options for us in this war. Invade Gaza City and the crowded refugee camps and we risk the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and those of our fellow citizens captured by Hamas, along with the lives of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians who are in effect Hamas’s human shields. 

We know there are no good options for us in this war. Invade Gaza City and the crowded refugee camps and we risk the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and those of our fellow citizens captured by Hamas, along with the lives of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians who are in effect Hamas’s human shields. A ground offensive risks becoming stuck in the Gaza quagmire. But to allow the Hamas regime to remain in power will further erode Israeli deterrence, emboldening our enemies, from Hezbollah to Iran.

Living with terrifying options, along with constant violence, is an essential part of the Israeli experience. Though outsiders often trivialize the agony of Israel’s Palestinian dilemma, most of us here know the truth: Anything we do could threaten Israel’s existence.

Opt for a Palestinian state on the West Bank, and a second Gaza may well emerge in the highlands overlooking the coastal plain around Tel Aviv, where most Israelis live. Opt for annexation, and the forcible absorption of three million Palestinians into Israeli society destroys its identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Most Israelis prefer a nebulous centrist position, maintaining a status quo that is neither annexation nor withdrawal. Yet that too is dangerous, allowing the settlement movement to expand and inch us closer to a bi-national state.

Was the massacre, as Hamas’ defenders insist, an “understandable” if perhaps exaggerated reaction to the occupation?

Hamas calls the area it attacked “occupied Palestine,” though it is within Israel’s internationally recognized borders. For Hamas and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies, Tel Aviv is no different from a West Bank settlement.

People line the route of a funeral procession for a fallen soldier, on October 15, 2023 in Modi’in, Israel. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Though much has been made by Hamas apologists regarding the 2017 amendment of its charter to include acceptance of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, that was merely a tactical shift, an interim stage on the way to Israel’s destruction: “Hamas believes that no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded,” the same charter says. “Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.”

Many Israelis who oppose the occupation recognize the moral clarity of this moment and are now in uniform. Whatever one’s politics, we know that it wasn’t Israel’s policies that provoked the massacre but its existence. 

Many Israelis who oppose the occupation recognize the moral clarity of this moment and are now in uniform. Whatever one’s politics, we know that it wasn’t Israel’s policies that provoked the massacre but its existence. 

The massacre was not an expression of desperation but of genocidal intent. The tactics exposed the goal. The point-blank mass murder of civilians wasn’t a political problem requiring a political solution, but an existential threat requiring a military response.

For the Jewish moral sensibility, Israel’s 100 year conflict with the Palestinians is deeply disorienting. During 2,000 years of exile and persecution, Jews confronted variations of enmity with no basis in reality. “The Jews” didn’t kill Jesus. We were not the subverters of the white race, as the Nazis believed, nor the manipulators of world capital, as the Soviet communists claimed.

But in the era of Jewish power, our enemies’ accusations aren’t entirely baseless. A large part of the Palestinian people are living under Israeli occupation. There are human-rights violations in the West Bank, and settler violence against innocent Palestinians. There are dead children in Gaza, killed by Israeli planes. We may argue, as we must, that these are consequences of a conflict Israel tried to avert and then tried to solve, that arguably no national movement has rejected offers of statehood more often than have Palestinian leaders, that Israel tries to prevent civilian casualties while its enemies try to maximize them.

Still, a nation seeking to thwart enemies attempting to destroy it, and who are prepared to use any means, will inevitably find itself in morally compromising situations. This tragedy will once again play out in the coming weeks. The price of power is the loss of innocence.

But Hamas has reminded us why the Jewish people opted for power in the first place. In a world in which pure evil exists, and where Jew-hatred may be an incurable illness, powerlessness is, for Jews, the greater sin.

Hamas has given us no choice. Victimhood is antithetical to the Israeli ethos. We would rather be condemned than pitied.

As the ferocity of Israel’s response unfolds, along with the terrible suffering of innocent Palestinians caught in the crossfire, we will lose much of the sympathy our dead have earned us. But Hamas has given us no choice. Victimhood is antithetical to the Israeli ethos. We would rather be condemned than pitied.

When this is over, we will return to the agonizing debate over the future of our relations with the Palestinians. Will a Saudi rapprochement with Israel make possible a joint Arab-Israeli approach to ending the occupation? Will the devastation of this war – which could expand to Lebanon and Syria and even Iran – lead to the creation of a new Middle East prefigured by the 2020 Abraham Accords? Will regional war lead to a regional approach to peace?

Meanwhile, we cope as Israelis always do during war – by endlessly arguing military strategy in our air raid shelters, by reminding each other we’ve been through worse (though that argument is more difficult to make today), by earnestly repeating all the clichés about Jewish perseverance that in normal times cause young Israelis to roll their eyes, by reverting to the ironic humor of our ancestors. One friend, a new immigrant, confided that she is panicking and thinking of going abroad. “This is my first war,” she said, “How do people here go through this every few years?” “By pretending you’re not panicking,” I said. And by hoping that, when this is over, we will return to the pretense of living normal lives in a normal country.


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Globe and Mail.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  His latest book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” is a New York Times bestseller.

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