Swords of Iron

Israel’s Achilles’ Heel

As the war in Israel continues, will the country be able to achieve its two goals of defeating Hamas and releasing all the hostages?

We are all overwhelmed – handcuffed to an emotional roller coaster that shakes wildly with every new piece of information about any of the hostages.

That’s how we are: we are responsible for each other, we don’t leave anyone behind, and we are partners in a covenant of fate that is now being put to the test. The whole country cried as kidnapped child Ohad Munder ran to his father. This is who we are – of one heart. And we are proud of that.

But victory in war cannot be achieved through a veil of tears.

After the embarrassing failure of October 7, Israel has mobilized with an impressive determination we had almost forgotten was in us. The soldiers (and even more amazingly, their families) are willing to continue the mission until the work is done. The world’s strongest superpower supports us in an unprecedented way.

It took 50 days, but we have conquered and destroyed half of the above-ground area of the Gaza Strip. And yet, not only is Hamas unbroken, but it continues to control the narrative of the war.

An entire nation holds its breath in anticipation of the decisions of Yahya Sinwar, the terrorist of the sewers. And no – this is not a surprise, but a predictable result. Why?

Israel’s strengths and weaknesses

Israel resembles Achilles, the hero of Greek myth: like him, she is strong, and no one can defeat her. But also like him, she has a weakness – an “Achilles’ heel” – and whoever targets it can overwhelm her.

Sinwar and his fellow terrorists were released from an Israeli prison because their predecessors shot an arrow into the Israeli heel: they managed to capture one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, “the child of us all.” And in doing so, they fractured Israel’s mental fortitude: over 1,000 terrorists were set free to plan the death trap awaiting the Gaza envelope communities just across the border in Israel.

Sinwar has once again aimed the arrow at Israel’s Achilles’ heel. In his understanding, his opening move – dragging babies, children, women, and the elderly into the Gaza tunnels – guarantees his victory.

Israel can empty its arsenal on Gaza and reduce it to ruins, kill thousands of terrorists, and eliminate Hamas battalion and brigade commanders, but the victory will belong to Hamas if, at the end of the day, Israeli public pressure on its leadership to return the abductees “at any cost” leads to a cessation of hostilities before the war’s goals have been fully realized.

Sinwar rubs his palms together with pleasure when he sees the Israeli broadcasts, the opinion pieces, the heartbreaking posters, the demonstrations chanting the one-word slogan “now.” He understands very well that the Israeli public is unable to cope with the hostage issue.

The leaders assure us that we will return to battle after the pause and that the current deal aims to bring home as many hostages as possible without giving up on defeating Hamas, but is that how they will act in practice? I am afraid that outside pressure, which will greatly increase – and even more important, pressure from the inside not to leave a single captive in enemy hands – will soften Israel’s determination. The preview is already flickering live on the national screen.

THIS TIME, the price may be far more significant. If this time, too, Israel does not defeat Hamas in such a way that it ceases to exist in the Gaza Strip, the country will forfeit the most important asset for its future: the power of deterrence against its enemies. Unlike Hamas, which is not an existential threat, the loss of deterrence is an existential threat.

If it were possible to call upon logic in this time of emotional turmoil, we would understand that the call to release the abductees at any cost must be rejected. It is an understandable impulse – we identify the hostages by name, their pictures are seared into our consciousness, so it is impossible to accept their “abandonment,” heaven forbid (a second time, after the abandonment of October 7), but it is a mistaken impulse.

It could mean that many who are currently unidentified will pay with their lives in a war that breaks out due to the loss of deterrence. The State of Israel must act mightily to return the hostages, including risking the lives of its soldiers in bold operations (per Entebbe), but it must not relinquish the total overthrow of Hamas in order to bring them home.

Jewish tradition states, “There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives” (Maimonides), and “Every moment of delay in redeeming captives… is as if blood is shed” (Shulchan Aruch, sometimes dubbed the Code of Jewish Law). Our foundational story, the Exodus from Egypt, deals with the redemption of the entire nation – from captivity to freedom. These are the deep underpinnings of the wonderful sense of mutual responsibility inherent in us.

However, the tradition also states, “The captives are not redeemed for more than their actual value in the betterment of the world” (Mishna). In other words, although the redemption of captives is a supreme value, it is not an absolute value. The readiness to redeem captives at “any cost,” noble as it may be, contravenes Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. And in the current context, it could lead to the collapse of Israeli deterrence.

Although the words are heartbreaking, it is important to say clearly: mutual responsibility is an important asset for strengthening national security, but it is not the only one.

Even if the Israeli public finds it difficult to accept, this is the supreme test of the Israeli leadership: if it turns out that Israel is unable to achieve the two goals of the war – the defeat of Hamas and the release of all the hostages – and has to choose between them, will it be able to withstand public pressure? Can we prove that Sinwar is wrong about us? Will Achilles realize his power?

Published in the Jerusalem Post