Israel, Time and Power: Potentially Devastating Chronologies

Israeli political and military planners normally consider the power-granting importance of tangible territory, or space. Nonetheless, time is also an important component of Israel's cumulative national influence, and should be more closely examined. Opinion

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Ultimately, Israel's successful defense must depend upon far more than prudent strategic and tactical planning. It requires what the ancient Greeks and Macedonians insightfully called a victory of "mind over mind," as distinguished from mere "mind over matter." To most plausibly achieve such an indispensable victory, the Jewish State will first need to acknowledge that "time" is not only the dynamic process within which its national power must always be fashioned. It also represents a critically meaningful source of power unto itself.

Although generally unrecognized, time is power. In Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv (political and military centers), vital conceptual linkages between time and power now warrant more serious examination. On the surface, the core struggle between Israel and its enemies is about space. Largely ignored, however, is that this conflict is also about chronology. Indeed, while seemingly counter-intuitive, the chronological dimension of this relentless conflict is distinctly central to war and peace in the region.

For Israel, time matters in different but still-intersecting ways. In order to survive, the country's protracted fight against war and terror will always have to be conducted with far greater subtlety than can be offered by narrowly standard military intelligence; and with much greater imagination than can generally be supplied by any weapon system and doctrine. In essence, this indisputably existential fight will demand more persistent and discerning attentiveness to various chronology-based determinants of enemy power.

For Israel, history takes no sharp turns. By rejecting all measurable chronologies as little more than linear a progression, the early Hebrews had already approached time with a commendably refined intellectual sophistication. That is, they fully embraced an approach accepting the idea of time as a qualitative experience. For these early Hebrews, therefore, chronology was normally understood as something subjective, as a manifestly living human property, and thereby as one logically inseparable from any personally infused content.

The Jewish prophetic vision, which ultimately gave birth to Christianity and also to much of the modern world, identified a viable community existing under a transcendent God, and, significantly, in time. Political space in this system was also important, but not because of territoriality as such. Here, the importance of space – today we would speak both politically and operationally of land – had stemmed from something markedly less concrete.

This true and tangible source of meaning was the nexus of sacred events that had taken place within ancient Israel's geographic boundaries. These physical boundaries, in turn, were taken as important, not because of any spatial requirements per se, but rather because they had been of a presumptively divine origin. Then, the Jewish community's valuation of space had little or nothing to do with providing any measurably operational protection for the conspicuously-vulnerable Jewish Commonwealth.

There are lessons to be learned. For present-day Israel, the conceptual space-time relationship has two basic dimensions. These need to be clarified and better understood.

First, and utterly axiomatic, is a logically incontestable determination: Further territorial surrenders by Israel would reduce the amount of measurable time that Israel has left to resist catastrophic war, terrorism, and conceivably genocide. Most obvious, in this regard, is that a Palestinian state – any Palestinian state – would more-or-less quickly support a variety of Islamist insurgents determined to absorb "Occupied Palestine" (the rest of Israel) into the new Arab state. One growing prospect, in this particular regard, would concern expected ISIS inroads across eastern Jordan.

By definition, such inroads would bring fiercely fanatical Jihadist forces directly into the West Bank (Judea & Samaria).

The pertinent scenario is already quite easy to decipher. In time, ISIS could effectively overrun "Palestine," an ominous narrative suggesting that the principal impediment to Palestinian statehood is not really Israel, but instead a competing band of Sunni Arab terrorists.

Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." Sometimes, let us be candid, absurdity triumphs in world politics.

Second, any further Israeli territorial surrenders, especially when considered together, cumulatively, would provide additional time for Israel's myriad enemies to await a perfect attack opportunity. Determining precisely when such an optimal moment would become recognizable to Israel's relevant adversaries could ultimately depend upon the different terror groups’ own selected and personalized ideas of time.

For Israel, time is always power. "Yesterday," warned Samuel Beckett, in his oft-cited analysis of Proust, "is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably a part of us, heavy and dangerous." Beckett, the prescient playwright creator of Godot, would likely have understood Israel's current chronology-based risks, and also its corollary policy obligations. Sometimes, military imperatives are actually better understood by the poet than by the strategist.

Credo quia absurdum. At times, the poet may supply better intellectual defenses than even the most capable military thinker. In this connection, it is worth mentioning, too, that there exists not a single military planner on earth who has acquired any specifically nuclear conflict-related skills. Ironically, however, we can be of two minds on this experiential absence, and thus also be grateful for it.

Going forward, a subjective metaphysics of time, a complex reality that is based not on clocks and sequentially-numbered increments, but instead upon felt representations, of time as lived, should more seriously influence Israel's defense policy. The proposed task here is largely intellectual, not narrowly operational or political. Among other things, Israel must soon try to better understand the many different ways in which individual enemy countries and terror groups might choose to live within time.

For example, if certain Jihadist terror organizations were judged willing to accept identifiably short time horizons in their search for bringing Israel to a cataclysmic end, the Israeli military response to these anticipated enemy aggressions would then have to be correspondingly swift.

Plausibly, and even more concretely, any such perceived enemy willingness could heighten Israel's incentive to undertake certain defensive first-strikes. In the language of international law, these strikes, if judged permissible, would be a legitimate expression of anticipatory self-defense. This preemptive posture could correctly represent a binding portion of customary jurisprudence, one that has its formal origins in an 1837 case called The Caroline.

If, however, it would seem that this enemy apocalyptic time horizon were actually "long," Israel's policy response could then afford to be appropriately less urgent. Here, Israel could choose to rely more upon the relatively passive and problematic strategic dynamics of deterrence and defense. To wit, in addition to ISIS and related Sunni terrorist fighters, Hezbollah, and its own kindred Shi'ite militia forces will need to be studied for their prevailing and expected views of time and power. In consequence, the starkly apocalyptic elements of enemy policy or policies could emerge as still more worrisome.

In the Middle East, inter alia, eschatology must remain genuinely central to Israeli strategic understanding and military planning. While very difficult to fathom, "last things" can never be minimized or disregarded.

Of very special interest to Israel should be the hidden time horizon of the Jihadist suicide bomber. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this adversary is deeply afraid of death, so afraid, in fact, that he or she is enthusiastically willing to "kill” himself or herself as a "sacred" means of overcoming personal mortality. To extrapolate from the telling imagery of Kurt Vonnegut, the late great Indiana author, any such strategy of transcending death could offer certain susceptible terrorists a convenient way to "unstop time."

In world politics, there can never be any greater promise of power than power over death. Inevitably, such ultimate power must be firmly based upon an antecedent power over time. Accordingly, Israel could benefit from finally "decoding" a growing and paradoxical enemy mindset, one that stubbornly identifies "suicide" with eternal life. Such an effort would need to focus upon a plainly primary Islamist idea. Apropos of writer Vonnegut, this idea is the unambiguously seductive notion that time need not always have a "stop."

Israel's primary defense task must always be intellectual. To survive, Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv must first learn how to transform a widespread enemy understanding that expressly links heroic "martyrdom” to a personal conquest of time. For now, at least, many of Israel's adversaries still regard "Death for Allah" as the very best way to soar ecstatically above ordinary chronology, that is, high above "profane time."

In this way, these enemies reason, authentic believers may choose rationally to "live forever." Could there possibly be any more inviting choice?

In Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, key decision-makers must finally realize that the Islamic suicide bomber typically sees himself or herself as a religious sacrificer. Each such adversary, whether Sunni or Shi'ite, consciously aims to escape from profane time, or time without meaning, to a time that is perpetual and consequently sacred. By willfully abandoning the ticking clock increments that imprison ordinary mortals, and thereby condemn them to a death everlasting, the suicide bomber slaughters both "heathen" and "infidel" in an eternally grateful exchange for personal immortality.

There is more. Israel must soon acknowledge, more explicitly, that there can also be "suicide states." Today, the most obvious candidate for any such designation would be Iran. Doctrinally, at least, this still prospectively nuclear Islamic Republic is committed to a plainly apocalyptic narrative of Shi'ite theology.

Again, eschatology matters.

Jerusalem's immediate policy response to all this should be clear and purposeful. More precisely, Israel must somehow convince likely suicide bombers, both individuals and states, that any intended "sacrifice" of Jews or the Jewish State could never elevate them above the fixedly mortal limits of time. For this complex process of convincing to work, however, the anticipated enemy "sacrificers" would first need to be assured that: (1) they are not now living in profane time; and (2) that every sacrificial killing must actually represent a profanation (not a sanctification) of their allegedly "one true faith."

To be sure, accomplishing this untested sort of persuasion will not be easy. It may even require the transnational cooperation of certain leading Islamic clerics. More immediately, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will need to affirm certain core enemy perceptions of chronology as genuine threats to Israel's basic security. Thereafter, Jerusalem's task should be to systematically "de-link" any such wishful perceptions from long-held enemy dispositions to war and terror.

For Israel, time – not only territory – can bestow vital national power.


Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.



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