I’ve grown tired of reading learned analyses of Palestinian terrorism, and how Israel can’t do much to halt the current “stabbing intifada” nor negotiate towards a more stable reality.
Israel is stuck in an impossible situation, the analysts explain, with few good options. It’s hard to track every Palestinian youth with a kitchen knife, and it’s impossible to advance a diplomatic process with the rejectionist-nihilist Palestinian leadership.
That’s all true, but not good enough. I expect a proactive response from Israeli leaders.
I’m also sick of experts who contextualize the Palestinian violence, then explain that Israel must not respond disproportionately and should seek merely to restore the status quo.
I’m disappointed with Israeli decision-makers who can’t find ways to shake-off the multi-layered tactical, legal and global diplomatic restraints that prevent Israel from knocking back the unruly Palestinian Authority.
I’m equally fed up with Western policymakers who are intellectually and morally incapable of distinguishing between a democratic state that protects human rights from a non-democratic, authoritarian and terrorist regime that has historically hated the West and is currently engaged in clear-cut aggression.
So I hanker for fresher, more passionate thinking; something that might guide Israel forward with positive momentum.
Enter Major General (res.) Gershon Hacohen, who just retired from 41 years of service in the Israel Defense Forces, and has joined the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies as a senior research associate. Hacohen is an out-of-the-box deep thinker. He is messianic and impulsive in some of his prescriptions; ideologically precise and visionary in others.
In the current context, Hacohen’s central insight is this: Those who view Israel as a stepping stone for redemption and as the Jewish national spiritual homeland will act differently in responding to Palestinian violence than those who view Israel merely as a safe haven state. If the former, the government should do more than just approve security operations against Palestinian terrorists. It should approve renewed building in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria.
HACOHEN IS a complex and fascinating man. Throughout his career, he was widely considered to be the “thinking intellectual” of IDF generals, although not all his colleagues understood what he was driving at.
When he retired, he was the last serving IDF officer to have fought in the Yom Kippur War. He was the last active IDF commander to have fought against Syrian troops on Syrian soil; and was the only active IDF commander to have battled the Egyptians. He later served as commander of the military colleges and commander of the Northern Corps. For the past decade, he has been in charge of designing the IDF’s major war games exercises.
Notably, Hacohen commanded over Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, which he didn’t like. But he spoke and wrote evocatively about the supreme need to submit to the will of the elected leadership of Israel.
His Gaza role is particularly poignant because Gershon comes from one of the most prominent families in Israel’s Religious Zionist community; a community that was hard hit by the disengagement. (His father, Rabbi Yedaya Hacohen, co-founded Yeshivat Har Etzion with Rabbis Amital and Lichtenstein. His four brothers also are well-known rabbis and educators).
Gershon is not Orthodox. Yet he declares that he is deeply “religious,” and all his talks and writings on military strategy and national security are infused with religious imagery and argumentation.
His recent book, What’s National in National Security
(Hebrew: Ministry of Defense Publishing House, 2014) is essentially a discourse on the importance of faith, vision and religious-ideological aspirations in the crafting of national security doctrine.
In two incisive recent papers for the BESA Center, Hacohen has critiqued the security approach of cabinet and military leaders. Their approach, he says, is primarily defensive, and thus defective.
Hacohen reminds us that David Ben-Gurion devised a security doctrine that sought to transfer the battlefield into enemy territory. In part, this was because Israel's narrow borders make defensive maneuvering difficult. But Ben-Gurion favored this approach primarily because he understood that to win a war, even a defensive war, Israel had to seize the initiative. In other words: Israel must be proactive, rather than, reactive.
“Restoring calm” in Jerusalem and the West Bank (through anti-terrorist operations, fences, roadblocks etc.), Hacohen says, is akin to putting a derailed train back on track – no more. It is a technical solution, not a goal-oriented chess move that drives a new reality. The Zionist movement always sought to, and today too should seek to, reshape Israel’s strategic reality according to its preferences.
This means maneuvering, expanding, building, and forcing the enemy on the defensive, says Hacohen, in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. He sees settlements as forward outposts of Zionism, in addition to their being critical to Israel’s military deployment in the territories. “Where there is a farmer on his land,” he says, “the army has the strength to rule.”
Unlike so many of his left-leaning former military colleagues, Hacohen is utterly opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and equally opposed to any further unilateral withdrawals too.
In particular, Hacohen feels that the struggle for a united and “greater” Jerusalem (from Jericho to Jaffa) is the DNA that holds the key to the future of Israel. “Israel needs to know why Jerusalem should be a priority: Because it is seeking the return to Zion in all regions of the homeland! And if Israel does not insist on this, it will steadily withdraw inward, toward the coastal plain, and edge towards decline.”
Hacohen reminds us that at the height of the War of Independence, in 1948, Ben-Gurion explained why he set the capture of Jerusalem as a primary objective in the war. Speaking before the Zionist General Council, he said, “I don't need to tell you what value Jerusalem has had in the history of the Jewish people and the land of Israel and world. ... If a land has a soul, then Jerusalem is the soul of the land of Israel, and the battle for Jerusalem is paramount, not just in a military sense. ... We are duty bound to stand by Jerusalem, and it deserves it. The pledge we took on the rivers of Babylon is binding now as it was binding then, otherwise we would no longer be able to call ourselves the people of Israel.”
UNDERLYING HACOHEN’S weltanschauung is the notion of ongoing struggle, and deep faith in the righteousness of the Jewish return to Zion.
This first part of this thought-process is somewhat Bolshevik or Maoist in approach: Israel is engaged in a permanent revolution. Consequently, Hacohen says, Zionism must constantly seek to re-shape and shake-up the strategic environment, never giving up on its ideals despite strategic and tactical difficulties. Even if Israeli leaders can’t see where the struggle might lead, they are nevertheless mandated to push forward, says Hacohen.
You shuffle the cards and create facts on the ground. And then, drawing on passionate commitment that comes from true belief in your cause – religious-nationalist faith in the justice of Zionism – have confidence that the Heavens will help stickhandle the helm of state.
I like the revolutionary fervor inherent in Hacohen’s approach; although its implementation in practice clearly needs cool minds. He wants to bring back a Zionist discourse on pioneering, redemption and settlement – taking themes from the dynamic worldviews of Berl Katznelson, Ben-Gurion, and Rabbi AY Kook. He is calling for Israeli leaders with sufficient Zionist fire in their bellies with which to defy all detractors.
When enemies such as ISIS and Iran are resolutely motivated by revolutionary ideologies, Israel can’t get by with leaders bereft of ideological zeal; stuck in a holding pattern or management mindset. Hacohen’s message is that Israel must reacquire sufficient ideological determination to persevere, progress, repulse, and (yes!) overwhelm its adversaries. www.davidmweinberg.com