Swords of Iron

Israel cannot afford to stop the war in Gaza

Israel’s national security is based on deterrence, advance warning, and decisive victory. On October 7, the warning system failed. If we stop the war now, it would mean giving up on decisive victory.

As the war in Gaza continues, impatience appears to be gaining momentum within the Israeli body politic, and voices calling for its end are increasingly heard. Those who support ending the war rely on three arguments: social/moral, security/utility, and political/democratic.

The growing concern for the fate of the hostages is at the core of the social/moral argument for stopping the war. There is an understandable, all-too-human desire for their return “now” and “at any cost.” Since Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has conditioned the hostages’ release on a full halt of military operations, some feel that “there is no choice” but to end the war. The noble feeling of solidarity pushes us to do what seems most important: to save lives, literally.

There is also the security/utility argument: is Israel being dragged into the Gaza quicksand, where the continuing war exacts an ever-increasing price without achieving the strategic advantages that justify it? It seems that Israelis are afraid of this: according to the JPPI Israeli Society Index, at the onset of the fighting, 78% were certain of victory, but now it is just 61%.

The growing skepticism of victory is tied to the assessment that continued fighting will claim the blood of even more IDF soldiers, fragment Israeli “togetherness,” delay reconstruction in the Negev and the north, punish the national economy, and diminish political support for Israel around the world.

Fourth month of Iron Swords war in Khan Yunis, Gaza,TPS

And now the political/democratic argument: the societal firestorm caused by the judicial reform, which brought us to the brink of civil war, and the security earthquake caused by the Hamas invasion, have dramatically altered the reality in which the state functions. This change summons Israelis to the voting booth to reaffirm their support for the current leadership or to replace it.

The JPPI Index shows that trust in the prime minister and the government is very low (30% and 35%, respectively). These figures indicate that the current leadership’s ability to rally public support for significant moves has been severely diminished. However, according to traditional political wisdom, going to elections is inconceivable in wartime. If this is the case, it is better to stop the war to allow the people to have their democratic say in granting or denying confidence in the government to lead Israel in the next campaign, the one beyond the war itself.

THESE ARE three serious arguments, but alongside them stands an opposing argument of massive, and in my view, decisive, weight: ending the war before the overthrow of Hamas rule would likely expose Israel to existential security threats. Former prime minister David Ben-Gurion understood that because Israel is dwarfed by its enemies – in demographic terms (100s of millions vs less than 10 million), in terms of strategic depth (100s of kilometers vs a narrow-waisted land base), and in terms of financial resources – they would be tempted to try, time after time, to destroy us.

This is why deterrence is such a crucial element of Israel’s security concept. Deterrence – erecting an “iron wall,” as Jabotinsky put it – forestalls the next round of war for as long as possible. Over time, it may lead our enemies to despair at the prospect of our destruction, thus opening up the possibility of signing peace agreements.

Israel’s clear victory in the Yom Kippur War, which ended with the IDF positioned 100 kilometers from Cairo, eventually brought us to a peace treaty with the largest and most formidable of our neighbors.

Ben-Gurion and those who followed him realized that to maintain deterrence, Israel must strive for nothing less than overwhelming victory in its wars. This is the only way to stave off the next war and preserve the peace agreements and informal alliances with various powers in the region and beyond. An Israel that loses its deterrence power may entice many – not only Iran and its proxies – to attempt to annihilate it.

This is the correct context for understanding the strategic significance of the dilemma of whether to stop the war or to press on. In its opening salvo, Hamas handed a humiliating defeat to Israel that will not be forgotten. The advance warning system, also a critical component of our national security concept, failed catastrophically on October 7.

But this one-off move, in itself, does not tip the scales in the overall balance of deterrence, which derives from the results of war, not the causes. This was also the case in the Yom Kippur War – which began with a failure of the warning system but ended with an overwhelming victory that strengthened Israeli deterrence and effectuated a strategic reconfiguration in the region.

The Israeli government was right in declaring that the goal of the war was to dismantle Hamas. This is essential to preserving Israeli deterrence, and to this end, the State of Israel mobilized impressively: the internal disputes fell silent at once; a quarter of a million IDF reservists were called up; tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes in both the south and the north to enable the war effort to deliver a crushing defeat to the enemy.

Israel exposed itself to unrelenting political attacks and a massive loss of support around the world, and Diaspora Jews are facing a wave of antisemitism unprecedented since World War II. This is the heavy price we are paying – and as the war continues, it will increase – but it is necessary for one supreme purpose: to restore Israeli deterrence by defeating Hamas.

HAMAS IS the weakest of our enemies; it has no air force, no strategic depth, and no real state resources. It is vexingly difficult to subdue it quickly – because of its sophisticated subterranean tunnel system, because it cynically and unhesitatingly puts its citizens in harm’s way, and because it has managed to turn kidnapped Israeli citizens into human shields for its leaders. But even if the Hamas surrender is delayed, its total collapse as the entity in control of the Gaza Strip is essential to preserving Israeli deterrence. If we do not act decisively to complete the task, we will send a signal to the entire region that Israel is vulnerable, and the appetite to wipe us from the map will increase. Ending the war without a decisive victory is tantamount to a whale bleeding profusely in shark-infested waters.

Israel’s national security concept is based on three components: deterrence, advance warning, and decisive victory. On October 7, the warning system failed. If we stop the war now, it would mean giving up on an unequivocal win. It would make us complicit in undermining our own deterrence. Our enemies may mistakenly believe that there are cracks in the iron wall. Those who wish to strengthen Israel’s security for future generations, and those who wish to convince our enemies that the path of peace is the only one available to them, must grit their teeth and continue the war until a clear and decisive victory is achieved.

Published by Jerusalem Post