Opinion | Israel’s Elusive ‘Day After’

Is it far in the future, or have we already arrived?
By | Apr 04, 2024
Opinion, Spring 2024

What will happen on the “day after” the war in Gaza ends is one of the things (there are a few) over which the U.S. administration and the Israeli government are having a dispute. It started mildly and developed from a discussion to a public debate to what now seems like a crisis. Of course, to have a dispute about the day after, one must assume there’s a certain “day” and a certain “after.” Both assumptions are questionable.

In many wars, there is such a day. Hostilities end, and a cease-fire begins. On May 8, 1945, the Allies celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered. On August 14, 2006, the second Lebanon war ended. But what was the last day of the second Iraq war? Or of the war in Afghanistan?

Israel’s basic intentions are clear. Israel intends to fight until Hamas is no longer in charge of Gaza. It intends to make sure that Hezbollah is no longer a threat to Israelis living near the northern border. This could take months, years. And it could mean a war with no end in sight, just ebbs and flows of skirmishes and negotiations. That would mean a “day after” that is in the very distant future.

Of course, “the day after” can be defined in other ways: the day after the emergency government ceases to exist; or the day after a certain phase of the fighting is over—if Israel ends up sending its military into Rafah (another U.S.-Israel debate), it could be the day when this operation is done; or the day after 90 percent of the reservists are back home. Identifying this day is not an intellectual exercise; it is an essential ingredient in Israel’s path forward, because on October 7, the day of the murderous attack by Hamas, many of Israel’s challenges were postponed until this vague time. Until “the day after,” Israel has no time to deal with its social problems, needed reforms or planned legislation; it has no patience for political campaigns and ideological debates. Israel is supposed to be busy with only two things: mourning and fighting. The first means thinking about the hostages, the wounded, the dead, and soldiers in harm’s way. The second means making sure the disaster turns to victory.

History teaches that wars and national traumas have often ended in ways that were unexpected.

Until that coveted day (after) comes, Israelis engage in dreams. Things will never be the same again, they tell us in polls and focus groups. But the nature of the change they envision varies. Some of them believe that on the day after, no sane Israeli will talk ever again about a two-state solution and a Palestinian state (because, they say, the true nature of the Palestinians was revealed on October 7). Others assume that on the day after, no sane Israeli will ever again repress their knowledge of the challenge of having to deal with the Palestinians (because we’ve seen how such repression ends). Some believe the day after is the day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally departs (because no PM can politically survive after such calamity). Others believe the day after is when Netanyahu will once more prove himself to be irreplaceable (as only he can withstand the pressure to let the Palestinian Authority take over Gaza).

Most Israelis believe that new elections must take place on the day after. And yet, there is a majority coalition that could potentially ignore the wish of the people—or make sure a day after doesn’t come before the elections that are scheduled more than two years in the future.

There are Israelis who want the day after to arrive now; there are those who see no rush to get there. There are Israelis who think the day after is one of dramatic transformation and those who think the day after ought to be a time to take a deep breath and relax. Many assume, wrongly, that the day after will be something for which they can write a script, but history teaches that wars and national traumas have often ended in ways that were unexpected. The day after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu got into power—a surprise. The day after the Yom Kippur War, one of Israel’s lowest points, came peace with Egypt—Israel’s high point. Another surprise.

So, what’s in stock for Israel on this “day after”? It could be a political upheaval, or a change in leadership, or a time of social unity. But maybe, rather than planning for the day after, what Israelis must do for now is to remember that this war is unlikely to bring about a day after of the messianic, redemptive type. This war is not a war to end all wars. This war will not result in a lasting peace. This war will not miraculously eliminate Israel’s social problems, or its disease of polarization or its many other challenges. And since the war is less likely to end in a bang and more likely to end in a whimper, maybe, in some way, it is already beginning to end.

Maybe the day after is now.

Shmuel Rosner is senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute, the editor of themadad.com and an analyst for Israel’s Kan News TV.

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