Analysis | What Could Winning This War Look Like?

By | Feb 16, 2024

The slogan is posted everywhere in Israel: “B’yahad n’natzeach” “Together we will win.”

On highway bridges, at the entrance to the supermarket, on walls and fences all over the country—even on my taxi receipt.

And briefly, earlier this week, I did share a sense of community and victory, when, in a courageous mission, the army rescued two of the hostages out of Gaza. But quickly, the questions that nag at me every time I see that slogan came right back.

Who is “we”? And what does “winning” mean?  

As the war continues, as the government continues to fail its people, as the casualties keep growing, as the carnage in Gaza becomes increasingly incomprehensible, and as society slowly attempts to heal from the horrors of October 7,  the Israeli “we” is deeply divided. And these disparate “we’s” have very different ideas about what winning this war is supposed to mean.

For instance, I am not part of the “we” that includes those who want to resettle Gaza, including those 5,000 or so people who attended a conference in Jerusalem last month, organized by organized by the Nahala organization, which advocates for Jewish settlement expansion in territories including the West Bank under the banner, Settlement Brings Security. In a large public hall in Jerusalem, hundreds of young men danced ecstatically, their payot (sidelocks) bouncing and their tziziot (ritual fringes) flying about as they fervently chanted that settling Gaza will bring about the messianic redemption of the Jewish people, and where dozens of families stood on a stage, publicly committing to join one of the five settlements that are already being planned. 

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague has declared that Israel must increase its efforts to prevent genocidal actions toward Palestinians, but the people at the conference, including twelve cabinet ministers and fifteen MK’s, called for expelling the Palestinians from Gaza and the entire land of Israel. Repeatedly, they referred to the Palestinians as Amalek, the ancient nation that God commanded King Saul (in 1 Samuel) to annihilate. Earlier this year, Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, who also favors the settlement plan, even called for dropping an atomic bomb on Gaza. 

Adding to Israel’s precarious international position, Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich, who spoke at that conference, is blocking the U.S.-funded flour shipments to Gaza that Netanyahu had promised President Joe Biden he would deliver, in accordance with the dictates of the ICJ order. 

And what about the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox)? Three hundred thousand reservists, men and women, religious and secular, have been called up to fight this war, and many of them have been in service, almost without a respite, since October 7. According to the Israeli Foreign Office, at least one quarter of the casualties since the ground invasion in Gaza began have been reservists. A few hundred have died. The war is likely to continue for a long time, the possibility of war on the northern front looms, and increased troops will probably have to patrol Israel’s borders for the foreseeable future. In response, the Ministry of Defense has proposed two bills to extend IDF mandatory service for combat troops and reserve duty for all men and women discharged from regular service. Yet, many Haredim continue to promote legislation that will entrench their exemptions from service. Rabbi Dov Landau, a prominent Haredi leader, has even forbidden yeshiva students from attending military funerals or visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals.

Billions of shekels in extra finances are needed to fund the military, compensate reservists and the tens of thousands who live near the borders, and to provide services for those wounded and traumatized by the Hamas attacks. The proposed budget will demand across-the-board cuts in all social services, including health, education and welfare. Yet the Haredi parties continue to demand payment in full of the sectoral funds promised to them, feeling that the coalition agreements should continue as negotiated over a year ago. As Yitzhak Goldknopf, minister of housing and construction and leader of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, asked earlier this month on Israeli TV, “What does the war have to do with the government?”

“Together we will win,” the electronic speed-limit signs on the highway and at the entrance to a local coffee shop promise. But how can different “we’s” agree on what winning means?

For the hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the northern and Gazan border, winning would mean going back to their homes. But they know they can’t count on the government, which left them to their fate on October 7 and has since been unable to provide reasonable housing, consistent psychosocial services, or even to organize workers for their abandoned agricultural fields. (Volunteers do all that.) The council heads of the southern communities are demanding that the government tell them what security arrangements, procedures and finances will be in place to allow them to return to their homes, and that the government make this public. Last week, these council heads even slept in the prime minister’s office, insisting on a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu.

The government has yet to respond. The Finance Ministry has, however, reduced the benefits that the evacuated people were supposed to receive. It is not clear how long these tens of thousands of internal refugees will be able to stay in the hotels throughout the country where the government has put them up, but stipends for those who voluntarily leave the hotels and rent an apartment have also been cut.

In the north, more than 500 homes have been destroyed by the rockets lobbed by Hezbollah, and thousands of businesses have been decimated. Since these people have been relocated by order of the government, and since the destruction is the result of hostile activity, the residents are expecting, in accordance with is Israeli law, to receive compensation. But the government has yet to provide a clear program for compensation or recovery.  

And for the families of the hostages, winning can only mean one thing: the return of their loved ones. Even after the stunning rescue of the two hostages earlier this week, 134 hostages remain. An unknown number of them have already died from untreated injuries and disease or were executed by their captors. Another unknown number may have been killed by Israeli fire or airstrikes. IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi has repeatedly warned that for those hostages, “every minute” is critical.

Initially, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that winning this war involves two intertwined and simultaneous goals: to wipe out Hamas and to bring the hostages home. But as military leaders warn that there is no chance of an Entebbe-like swoop to save the hostages, as the casualties mount, and as Gaza is destroyed, he has begun to change his rhetoric. Winning, the prime minister now says, “must be a total victory” and the complete eradication of Hamas. Release of the hostages, he now insists, will be the result of military victory, not a simultaneous goal.

When interviewed in late January on a popular television program about this purported victory, Gadi Eisenkot, a decorated military strategist and a former IDF chief of staff, warned the public, “Whoever speaks of the absolute defeat [of Hamas in Gaza] and of it no longer having the will or the capability [to harm Israel], is not speaking the truth. We should not tell tall tales.”

Eisenkot has joined the war cabinet, although his party was not part of the coalition. His son, Master Sergeant Gal Meir Eisenkot, 25, was killed while fighting in Gaza in early December, followed by his nephew, Sergeant Maor Cohen Eisenkot, 19, a day later. Asked on that program if the government is telling the public the truth about this “total victory,” he answered sadly, his face lined and weary, “No.”

But many of the cabinet ministers continue to pretend that this total victory is possible, and explicitly state that the lives of the hostages may have to be sacrificed to bring it about. They contend that by demanding their loved ones’ release, the families of the hostages are subverting the war effort. Netanyahu has yet to say otherwise.

So what does winning mean to Netanyahu? Perhaps simply staying in office, continuing to enjoy the perks of the job and avoiding conviction in his trial on charges of breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud is enough. Maybe that explains why plans were approved in late January for another renovation, at the public’s expense, of the private swimming pool at his private residence in Caesarea and why he constantly gives in to the behaviors and demands of the most extreme members of his coalition.

Since he adamantly refuses to discuss any “day after the victory” plans, these slogans that he tosses out remain empty and vague. What will the Gaza Strip look like on the day that we achieve these goals? What will victory  look like—Netanyahu and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar shaking hands, in some updated image of Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant to end the American Civil War? Or maybe Israeli settlers raising the flag over Gaza, in some reconstruction of the famous image at Iwo Jima?

Those aren’t the victory pictures I hope to see. My victory pictures show the joyful return of the hostages who have survived and the mournful return of those who did not. To me, that picture will represent the victory of caring and compassion over politics, and recognition that this is what we need after the horrific carnage on October 7 and the costly fighting in Gaza. We will only all feel safe and begin to repair our lives after the hostages are returned. Settlements won’t make us a Jewish state; being a Jewish state means that we uphold the Jewish precept, found in the Talmud, that whoever saves one life is considered to have saved the whole world. 

I see victory pictures of the members of southern kibbutzim plowing their fields, picking their vegetables and fruits, and rebuilding their families and their communal lives. And I see the residents of the southern cities, for too long stuck in Israel’s neglected geographic, social, and economic periphery, reconstructing their schools and institutions with adequate funding to provide them with quality of life and standard of living equal to that of the cities in central Israel.

For all this to happen, we in the widest possible sense–must build an inclusive social-democratic movement that can repair the social contract between the citizens and the state and provide us with physical and existential security. It must be a movement dedicated to equality and social justice, and not solely to military security or Jewish sovereignty.

That movement is beginning to take root here, even in the middle of this horrible war. And if it grows, I believe that we might even be able to envision another image: the image of two flags, representing Israel and Palestine as two separate states, slowly, cautiously, and painfully learning to live next to each other, cooperate, and move on on towards a better future, even after all that we have done to each other.

4 thoughts on “Analysis | What Could Winning This War Look Like?

  1. Geoffrey Lewis says:

    Beautifully written and importantly provides the hope we need. Thank you and may the dreams you envisioned come to fruition soon.

  2. Gosha G says:

    “Social-democratic movement” is utopia.
    The issues raised are real but proposed solution is a fantasy. And it is rightfully so because anyone who is ready to offer a solution today lives in a fantasy.
    When Winston Churchill was asked about his strategy to win the War early in the war, he had no answer other than “keep buggering on”.
    Time will come for better answers to emerge. Now, the job is to destroy Hamas in whatever forms it exists and by any means possible and return the hostages, in that order. Then worry about the day after.

  3. Netti Epstein says:

    Thank you. I am so proud to have you as my dear cousin, who speaks so truthfully. putting pictures in my head. I will not sleep much.

    Love and hugs, Netti

  4. steve pollack says:

    The peaceful future envisioned is the only worthy future to hope for and work towards. “It is not a dream if We make it happen “. The We must involve not only significant majority coalition of Israelis, but also an overwhelming population of Palestinians and the determined honest support of international and regional governments. I have no illusions, but what other future is there?

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