Three Troubling Maxims for Israel

As the Israel-Hamas war grinds on, several strategic maxims come to mind. But the application of a maxim to a given situation is never transparent or even clear. And maxims may be more applicable in one type of situation than another. With those caveats, I will say that these maxims have become earworms, in a conceptual sense, as I keep thinking about them.

Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold

When and how should the Israelis avenge the Simchat Torah massacre? This maxim suggests taking time to strategize, being clear on ends and means. An analogy might be the American response to 9/11, which was deliberate and not immediate. In that case, however, there were no continuing al Qaeda attacks on the homeland or hostages being held by al Qaeda.

In the early days of this war, the Israelis were fighting off the attacks on their homeland, trying to locate the hostages, and trying to knock out rockets being launched at Israel from within Gaza. So, from the first day, the fighting inexorably spilled over from Israel into Gaza.

In addition, the Israeli leaders’ rhetoric about destroying Hamas and preventing it from ever again menacing Israel – a reflection of the mood of the people – is clearly an expression of immediate revenge (put otherwise as retribution and deterrence) served hot.

On the other hand, calls for humanitarian corridors into Gaza, American advice recounting the difficulty of urban combat in Afghanistan and Iraq and urging the delay of a ground war in Gaza until military and political objectives are clear, and similar questioning by Israeli and non-Israeli analysts have all – at this moment – lowered the temperature of Israeli revenge.

One Bad General is Better than Two Good Generals

This maxim, attributed to Napoleon, speaks to the importance of decisiveness in a military command, or crisis decision-making in general. It might be interpreted as advocating a single decision-maker or, if there isn’t a single decision-maker, once a collective decision is taken, everyone involved supporting it forcefully, with a prohibition on revisiting it or discussing alternatives not chosen. US decision-making in the Cuban Missile crisis could be considered an example of this maxim because President Kennedy sought a wide range of views within his secret ad hoc advisory committee (the Excom) but made the ultimate decisions himself. I haven’t read as much about Churchill’s War Cabinet, but I think here too, Churchill consulted a range of political opinion, including both leaders of other political parties, such as Clement Attlee, but he made the ultimate decisions. I’m sure Churchill’s pre-eminence was the result of not only his formal position but also his unique rhetorical talent.

Israel’s War Cabinet includes Prime Minister Netanyahu; his defense minister Yoav Gallant; two former military chiefs of staff who are also opposition politicians, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot; and Ron Dermer, the minister of strategic affairs and a former ambassador to the US. At least the group doesn’t contain some of Netanyahu’s extremist allies such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar ben-Gvir. But it incorporates long-standing political conflicts, and the opposition politicians – not Netanyahu – have the most military experience. And Bibi Netanyahu is no Jack Kennedy or Winston Churchill. Perhaps after some time the War Cabinet might develop a hierarchy, but now it has more than two good generals.

In the Name of God, Go

Okay, this isn’t really a maxim, but an exhortation, originally Cromwell’s words when he dismissed the Long Parliament. More recently and more famously Leo Amery, a Conservative backbencher, used these words to bring down Neville Chamberlain in a confidence vote in 1940. Quoting more from Amery, “We are fighting today for our life, for our liberty, for our all; we cannot go on being led as we are. … You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

Benyamin Netanyahu’s strategy of pursuing external Arab alliances, encouraging settlement in the West Bank, and attempting to divide and conquer both the Israeli and Palestinian polities, was dramatically repudiated on October 7. Eighty percent of Israelis want Netanyahu to go. Still, he clings to power. He is no inspiration, and if Israelis are motivated it is because of their loyalty to their state, not to him.

The disconnect between what I believe to be the wisdom of these maxims and the facts on the ground points out to me the difficulty of the war Israel is fighting. Without attempting to second guess the Israeli leadership’s specific decisions, I am nonetheless deeply concerned.

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