Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene BeresProf. Louis René Beres

In essence, time represents the most critical determinant of Israel’s survival as a state. This is true not just in relation to operational requirements of counterterrorism and nuclear war avoidance, but also because Israel’s policies reflect the accumulated learning of past experience. Such experience, as we may glean further from Irish poet Samuel Beckett’s analysis of Marcel Proust, is never really “passed.”

It remains “irremediably a part of us, heavy and dangerous.”

What can such a philosophical observation mean for Israel, a country smaller than America’s Lake Michigan, one forced to fight a Gaza War and protect against Hezbollah and Iranian air attacks at the same time? These are not abstract queries. Rather, they point toward variously tangible and potentially existential perils. Accordingly, a corresponding question should surface: To what extent could a greater policy awareness of time generate needed security benefits for the Jewish State?

In any coherent reply, meaningful answers will need to be framed in legal as well as operational terms. Though generally unrecognized, Israel’s principal terrorist adversaries - Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah - define ultimate victory from the manifestly intangible standpoint of power over death. Derivatively, for all these recalcitrant foes, becoming a “martyr” (shahid) represents power over time. “It is through death,” we gather from philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “that there is time.” The reciprocal is also fundamental: It is through time that there is death.

These matters contain very dense and perplexing ironies. Although Israel’s defense and security policies ought always to be science-based, such policies would still benefit from certain “subjective” understandings of time. More precisely, any such conceptualizations would require acknowledgement that “defense time” should be explained as subjective duration.

For Israel’s national security planners, “real time” ought never to be interpreted solely in terms of clock measurement. Because “clocks slay time” – an oft-quoted observation by American writer William Faulkner - narrowly “objective” interpretations could prove unexpectedly injurious. But what would actually constitute a suitably subjective and policy-centered theory of time? As every serious scientist understands, nothing is ever more practical for policy than good theory.

Whether explicit or implicit, Israeli security analyses should contain certain theory-based elements of chronology. Israel's many-sided struggle against war and terror will need to be conducted with more intellectually determined and conspicuously nuanced concepts of time. Seemingly “impractical,” such “felt time” or “inner time” conceptualizations could sometimes reveal far more about Israel’s core survival challenges than could the “objectively” numbered intervals etched onto clocks.

Interestingly, the notion of “felt time” or “time-as-lived” has its origins in ancient Israel. By rejecting time as simple linear progression, the early Hebrews approached chronology as a qualitative experience. Once dismissed as something that could submit only to quantitative measures, time began to be understood by these seminal Jewish thinkers as a subjective quality, one inherently inseparable from its personally infused content.

On its face, such classical Hebrew logic or logos could accept no other point of view. For Israel’s present-day defense planning, moreover, it’s a perspective worthy of prompt and policy-centered resurrections.

But no such “rebirth” could possibly emerge ex nihilo, out of nothing.

What then would be the tangible source needed for analysis in Jerusalem? In reply, there would have to take place a far-reaching Israel defense community commitment to intellect, learning and “mind.” It was Israel’s extraordinary understandings of military technology that safeguarded the country from Iranian missile aggression, but even these impressive understandings would prove insufficient in the longer-term.

Unless Israel can understand that a nuclear Iran should be prevented at almost all conceivable costs, Israel will sometime be defeated by time.

From its beginnings, the Jewish prophetic vision was one of a community living in time. In this immutable vision, political space was vitally important, but not because of any issues of territoriality. Instead, the relevance of space – today, both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs speak of "land" – stemmed from certain unique events that had presumably taken place within its sanctified boundaries.

For present-day Israel, the space-time relationship also reveals several less-philosophical security implications. Any considered territorial surrenders by Israel (Judea/Samaria or “West Bank”) would reduce the amount of “objective time” that Israel has to resist war and terrorism. Today, quite reasonably, relevant questions are being raised about the wisdom of PM Sharon’s “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005. Some past Israeli surrenders, especially when considered “synergistically,” provided “extra time” for Israel's enemies to wait patiently for optimal attack opportunities.

In the future, similar territorial concessions could produce existential costs.

For Israel, faced with recurrent war and terror on multiple fronts, the strategic importance of time can be expressed not only in terms of its relationship to space, but also as a storehouse of memory. By expressly recalling the historic vulnerabilities of Jewish life, Israel's current leaders could begin to step back sensibly from a seemingly endless pattern of lethal equivocations. Ultimately, at least in principle, such policy movements could enhance “timely” prospects for a durable peace.

Eventually, a subjective metaphysics of time, a reality based not on equally numbered chronological moments but on deeply-felt representations of time as lived, could impact the ways in which Israel chooses to confront its state and sub-state foes. This means, among other things, struggling to understand the manner in which these enemy states and terror groups choose to live in time.

If it could be determined that Iran and/or particular terrorist groups now accept a shorter time horizon in their search for “victory” over Israel, any Israeli response to enemy aggressions would have to be swift and time-oriented. If it would seem that a presumed enemy time horizon was calculably longer, Jerusalem’s response could still be more or less incremental. For Israel, this would mean relying more on the relatively passive dynamics of military deterrence and military defense than on any active strategies of nuclear war fighting.

Of special interest to Israel's prime minister and general staff should be the hidden time horizons of a Jihadist suicide bomber. Although a counter-intuitive sort of understanding, this martyrdom-focused adversary is overwhelmingly afraid of death. In all likelihood, he or she is so utterly afraid of “not being” that the correlative terrorist plan for “suicide” is intended as death avoidance. In terms of present-day investigations of time and Israel’s national security decision-making, "martyrdom” is generally accepted by hard-core Muslim believers as the most honorable and heroic way to soar above mortal limits imposed by clocks. Looked at from a dispassionate analytic perspective, however, it is actually invoked to sanitize barbarism and justify mass murder.

A next question arises: As a strategy or tactic for Israel, how can such perplexing correlations of death and time be suitably countered?

One way would require the realization that an aspiring suicide bomber sees himself or herself as a religious sacrificer. This would signify a jihadist adversary’s hope to escape from time that lacks meaning, an irrational hope to move beyond “profane time” to "sacred time.”

The martyrdom-seeking suicide bomber seeks to transport himself/herself into a rarefied world of “immortals.” For this terrorist, from “time to time,” the temptation to "sacrifice" despised “infidels” upon the altar of Jihad can become annihilationist and all-consuming. Now, among Israelis, this murderous temptation by overlapping enemies is easily recognized. Comparable sorts of “sacrificial” thinking could sometime come to dominate strategic decision-making processes in Tehran. It would be a replication of the “microcosm” (terror group) by the “macrocosm” (Iran).

Of course, the prospective dangers to Israel of the Iranian macrocosm would be vastly more catastrophic especially if Iran is allowed to proceed with its development of nuclear weapons and infrastructures.

Summing up, what should Israel do with such informed understandings of its adversaries’ concept of time? Jerusalem’s immediate policy response should be to convince both prospective suicide bombers and Iranian leaders that their intended "sacrifices" could never elevate them or their societies above the fixed mortal limits of time. The would-be sacrificers would need to convince themselves that they are not presently living in “profane time” and that killing of “infidels” or “apostates” would not offer the promised Jihadist reward of power over death.

Immediately, Israeli policy-makers will need to recognize certain dense problems of chronology as policy-relevant quandaries. They will also need to acknowledge to themselves that any plausible search for durable peace plans must be informed by intellectual understanding and by Reason. Looking ahead, ordinary considerations of domestic politics and global geopolitics will need to be understood as transient.

“As earthlings,” asserts Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut, “all have had to believe whatever clocks said.” As indispensable fonts of national security decision making, Israeli strategic thinkers now have it in their power to look beyond the simplifying hands of clocks and affirm more policy-purposeful meanings of time. For Jerusalem, exercising such a latent intellectual power could represent a survival posture of exceptional value.

Above all, Israel will need to be reminded that deeply serious national security planning is always much more than a technical, technological, tactical or operational task. Ultimately, it is a matter of surviving “in time.”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. The author of many major books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and international law, he first published on the chronological aspects of national security decision-making exactly fifty years ago. (See Louis René Beres, “Time, Consciousness and Decision-Making in Theories of International Relations,” The Journal of Value Inquiry; Fall 1974.) Dr. Beres, has lectured widely at Israeli military and intelligence venues, including the IDF National Security College. His twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd, ed. 2018). Dr. Beres is a six-time contributor to Oxford University Press Annual Yearbook on International Law and Jurisprudence and a member of the Oxford Yearbook’s editorial advisory board. He was born in Zürich at the end of World War II.