IDF forces operate in Gaza
IDF forces operate in GazaIDF spokesperson

Why were we so unprepared for the Simchat Torah massacre? Because our public did not want to become a ‘Jewish’ version of Sparta

Yitzhak Brick (previously the IDF ombudsman) forcefully warned the military and political echelon that the a massacre was a likely event, and no one wanted to listen

Over the last five years Yitzhak Brick, the official ombudsman of the IDF, continually warned that IDF ground forces were highly unprepared to fight a ground war. The IDF was relying too much on the air force and on advanced technology to achieve military goals. There was inadequate budgetingt and improper strategic thinking, to properly supply, train, and prepare ground forces for conventional ground warfare. For example, the budget did not allow for the purchase of advanced military equipment and the adequate training of reserve units. Even more, he said, the home front was completely unprepared for a precision Hezbollah missile attack that could result in over thirty thousand dead and wounded.

In brief, the military and political leadership preferred to believe in the best case military scenario, that the air force, technology and diplomacy could comfortably maintain our military security. Both the civilian and military leadership ‘wished themselves itself into state of denial’, denying that the alternative prospect of ongoing, extensive, deadly fighting on the ground will be needed to maintain the military security of the Jewish state of Israel . They talked themselves into believing that ‘extensive ground fighting’ was a ‘thing of the past’.

Why did we and our political leadership not want to take the prophetic, ‘semi Doomsday’ warnings of Brick seriously?

There really is a very true and simple answer to the above question.. We did not want to accept the very black reality that for a Jewish State to survive in a very hostile, Islamic region we have to become like a “Jewish Sparta’ (the warrior, heavily militarized city state of ancient Greece, that arose in contrast to the more democratic, liberal culture of the Athenian city state).

In more simple, graphic terms, Ehud Barak once described Israel’s geo political situation as a villa in the midst of a jungle. Basing myself on Brick’s critique we should update the image and say that over the last thirty years (since the Oslo Accords) we preferred to spend our time in the villa’s swimming pool and watching streamed TV, rather do our rounds of guard duty and regular, armed excursions into the jungle to check out lurking dangers.

Implementing Brick's suggestions seemed to require that we slow down our steady transformation into a ‘comfortable’ society whose economy and social culture resemble that of liberal Western Europe.

The price of adopting Brick's recommendations, a price we ran away from paying

The social cultural, ‘life style’ price of Brick’s critique can be metaphorically conveyed by citing that our large, ‘middle class, professional sector’ (twenty to fifty years old) would have to spend more time doing reserve duty (two to four weeks a year) in the sands of the Negev and heights of the Golan rather than taking vacations all over the world.

Similarly, to adequately prepare and educate the public for an Iranian-Hezbollah massive rocket attack with an estimated thirty to fifty thousand civilian deaths, would inevitably result in injecting a semi apocalyptic, depressing element in our nation morale, possibly with negative mental and emotional side effects.

The economic growth price of Brick’s critique is starkly negative. Israel already spends the second largest percentage of its GNP in the world on defense. And this is after (reflecting Brick’s critique) that we have reduced this percentage by over twenty percent in the last twenty years.

Training and equipping a large conventional army (based on reserve duty) with the latest and best equipment and technology ( our men deserve it) would require rearranging budget priorities in a dramatic way. For example, building underground emergency rooms for every hospital in Israel, and reinforced shelters for major public services would mean less money for much needed investment in infrastructure (roads, transportation) , education, health and welfare, and increased taxation of the pubic and business sector, all of which are almost ‘lethal’ blows to real economic growth. Also, international investors do not want to invest in a ‘villa in an ominous jungle’. They prefer to believe they are investing in a ‘villa on the Mediterranean sea.

In brief, seriously implementing Brick’s critique would most likely have had serious and negative effects on the material and emotional ‘quality of life’ and national morale.

At this stage of the development of the modern Jewish state, before the Simchat Torah massacre, there was virtually no understanding and support for turning us into a ‘Jewish Sparta’.

And so our political leaders experimented with ‘solutions’ that have very unfortunately turned out to be ‘self delusions’

Over the last thirty years gifted, patriotic, well intentioned prime ministers, and ruling coalitions ,both Center Right, and Center Left, have attempted five solutions to our Jewish State’s existential dilemma : How to maintain the security readiness of a Jewish Sparta without losing our ability to grow into an economic, flourishing Western Jewish democracy.

Unfortunately our current war for survival with the Hamas has proven beyond a doubt that all of these five solutions have failed to resolve this critical, existential dilemma of the Jewish State.

Realizing the very difficult, almost impossible price, of trying to build the modern Jewish state as a Jewish Sparta’, they adopted the paradoxical strategies of ‘the best offense is a good defense’ and ‘the best way to advance is to retreat’.

One, the first attempt to pacify the surrounding hostile Islamic population were the Oslo Accords, out sourcing control of Islamic terrorism to Arafat. Rabin said openly that though he had doubts about the security arrangements of the Accords, he did not feel the public would support an ongoing intifada like conflict with the Palestinian Arabs, and that Arafat could ‘take counter terrorist measures’ that the Israeli Supreme Court would tell his government to take. The result, Arafat, our ‘anti- terrorist sub contractor’ against terror, became the Mafia- like Godfather of Palestinian Arab terror

A second attempt was Barak’s one sided withdrawal/’retreat’ from the ‘security zone’ of Southern Lebanon in 2000, with the result of the Hezbollah/Iran now aiming several hundred thousand missiles at the Israeli heartland. The retreat/withdrawal gave Iran the opportunity to become our next door neighbor, not exactly improving our military/geopolitical security.

The third attempt was Sharon’s one sided disengagement from Gaza. Sharon hoped that a) by removing daily conflict with local Palestinian Arab population, b) by giving the Palestinian Arabs the economic freedom and autonomy to build a Mediterranean Singapore, c) by building an advanced separation wall, and d) by using airpower to react to ‘occasional ‘acts of terrorism, we could ‘buy our military/ geopolitical security without the price tag of ongoing, costly military conflict. The Simchat Torah massacre put a ‘dead on arrival’ price tag on this concept.

The fourth attempt was Ehud Olmert's two headed strategy in 2006 to either a) seduce Abba Abass into a ‘final settlement’ by offering very far reaching concessions on almost all disputed topics (which the Palestinian Arabs refused outright) and b) a Sharon-Gaza like, one sided disengagement from 70 to 80 percent of Judea and Samaria. Olmert, like Sharon, believed that by building a wall, avoiding daily conflict with the Palestinians, and the threat of air power we could buy geopolitical security at a ‘cheaper price’. Fortunately, he did not have the opportunity to implement his ideas, because history has clearly shown that any inch of territory that is not under IDF military control immediately becomes a ‘plantation-launching pad’ for Islamic terrorism.

The fifth attempt to ‘buy military security at a ‘wholesale’ price’ is the one Bibi has attempted over the last fifteen years. It provided fifteen years of significantly smaller civilian and military casualties until it absolutely imploded with the Simchat Torah massacre. Bib’s approach has been described as ‘conflict containment’, and ‘minimizing the damage to Palestinian Arab civilians of our insoluble nationalistic conflict with them’, while prudently actualizing our military superiority

I would term Bib’s strategy as one of ‘the carrot and the stick’, the ‘carrot’ being a semi serious attempt to improve the economic life of the civilian population (particularly in Judea and Samaria, and even somewhat in Gaza), and sharing anti terrorist activities with the Palestinian Authority’, and thus enhancing the PA’s legitimacy; and the ‘stick’ being five short lived conflicts the Hamas’ (termed ‘mowing the grass’) primarily fought from the air, with no ground invasion of Gaza. Somewhat intentionally, this approach strengthened the Hamas at the price of weakening the PA, thus splitting and weakening the Palestinian Arab nationalistic movement.

Bib’s strategy did bring fifteen years of relative ‘security quiet’ and real economic growth, until the ‘pampered’ Hamas Frankenstein/ golem brutally rose up and began to cruelly murder its ‘maker’.

So what do these thirty years of diplomatic and military failure teach us?

For thirty years we wanted to have our cake and eat it too, to exist in an Islamic Middle East, but to diplomatically and militarily act as if we are co- existing in a non Spartan liberal, Western Europe or America. This ‘strategy’ has failed.

Our conclusion thus must be two fold. One, we must be more militarily aggressive against our enemies, and not put ‘trust’ in buying their cooperation and good will through ‘economic betterment and low level conflict containment’. We cannot return to the policy of allowing the Hamas, Hezbollah (and Iran) to build and surround us with a ‘wall of fire and hate’ just in order to avoid a ‘major military conflict’

Two, in order to pursue this policy we have to act diplomatically ‘with more chutzpah and independence and be willing risk a tolerable degree of ‘diplomatic isolation’. I admit this policy has risks, but in the short run it is necessary. We cannot build our security relying on ‘cotton candy’, semi utopian diplomatic agreements such as the ‘two state solution’, put forth by liberal democracies who delude themselves into thinking that thus they can make a detour around inevitable military conflict.

What to do after the failure of these five strategies? Will the Israeli public and political scene be willing to adapt some of the attributes of a Jewish Sparta?

The above analysis was written immediately after the Simchat Torah massacre and before the land invasion of Gaza by the IDF.

The conclusion of the article is now being written with the insights gleaned from two months of Israeli society fighting a very cruel and costly war, one that has mixed civilian and military bravery and sacrifice more than in any previous war. The traditional distinction between home front and military front has significantly diminished.

My tentative conclusions, based on our two months of fighting, are Yes, the Israeli public is willing to adopt a more ‘activist-aggressive’ military orientation, and a more independent international political posture, if the ruling ‘coalition’is based on a consensual, center-oriented, security focused (bitchonist) political ideology.

At all costs we must not allow the current public sense of national mutual sacrifice, unity and commitment of at least eighty per cent of the Jewish public to erode. This sense of national unity and sacrifice must be the political basis for the governing coalition that will follow the end of the military campaign and the initial outlining of some international political settlement.

There are strong signs that a broad spectrum of the public and politicians do not want to return to the “Left-Right, social identity” paradigm that has long dominated the Israeli political scene. Most of the public sincerely (almost desperately) wants a national consensus based government. Most realize that ‘peace is not around the corner’, and the long standing division on how many concessions can we make to the Palestinian Arabs (a two state solution) is no longer relevant after the Simchat Torah massacre. It is hard to imagine that the Israeli public would be willing to trust their security to any Palestinian Arab governing body after the Simchat Torah massacre.

Adopting a more ‘activist-aggressive military orientation, diplomatically independent’ orientation will call for real, real sacrifices from the Israeli public. These sacrifices were outlined above, where I detailed the price that adopting Brick's recommendations would entail.

Before the Simchat Torah massacre, the Israeli public was definitely not willing to pay this price. Now I believe that the Israeli public is more willing to pay the price in order to provide a level of military security that we now understand is critical and necessary. But they will be willing to pay the price only if the current high level of national sacrifice and solidarity is retained. And only a government which is consensual, centrist oriented, and security focused (bitchonist) will be able to continue to forge the high level of sacrifice and solidarity that our society has miraculously demonstrated since the beginning of the war.

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., was a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.