Roberto Rivera

Whom the Gods Want to Destroy


Roberto Rivera

That’s the title of a recent blog post by the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld. It’s presumably a reference to the saying “whom the gods would destroy, first they make mad,” which is attributed to Euripides but whose exact provenance is unknown. The object of the gods’ ill intent is, in van Creveld’s telling, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and, with it, the existence of the Jewish State.

The occasion of the piece is the killing of a wounded Palestinian terrorist by an Israeli soldier. To Israel’s credit, the shooting has, in van Creveld’s words, “sent the country into a turmoil.” Some people have decried the shooting, while others “lionized the soldier and accused the [IDF’s] chief of staff of failing to back his troops.” Whatever happens to the soldier, “the fallout from the case is splitting Israeli society from top to bottom.”

What concerns van Creveld the most is the effect of the occupation of the territories on the IDF. He quotes from his book, “The Transformation of War,” about the problems of a strong military force like the IDF when it confronts a weak opponent like the Palestinians:

Over the long run . . . fighting the weak demeans those who engage in it, and therefore undermines its own purpose. He who loses out to the weak loses; he who triumphs over the weak also loses. In such an enterprise there can be neither profit nor honor. Provided only the exercise is repeated often enough, as surely as night follows day the point will come when enterprise collapses. . . . Since the very act of fighting the weak invites excess, in fact is excess, it obliges the strong to impose controls in the forms of laws, regulations, and rules of engagement. . . . The net effect of such regulations is to demoralize the troops who are prevented from operating freely and using their initiative. . . . A sword, plunged into salt water, will rust . . . a strong force made to confront the weak for any length of time will violate its own regulations and commit crimes, some inadvertent and others not. Forced to lie in order to conceal its crimes, it will find the system of military justice undermined, the process of command distorted, and a credibility gap opening up at its feet. In such a process there are neither heroes nor villains, but only victims: whom the gods want to destroy, they first strike blind.

He ends by saying “Mr. Netanyahu, are you listening? For God’s sake, GET OUT OF THE TERRITORIES!!!”

Let me state the obvious: Van Creveld is not a starry-eyed peacenik. He is under no illusions about the ability to reach a mutually acceptable deal with the Palestinians or what will happen in the territories after an Israeli withdrawal. His “solution” is not “peace” but a wall, a proposal he lays out in “Defending Israel.” After describing why Israel cannot win what military analysts call an “evolved form of insurgency” against the Palestinians by the kind of conventional military means that the IDF is great at, he suggests that Israel change the nature of the conflict.

The change is withdrawing to something close to the pre-1967 borders and building a high-tech wall “so high a bird can’t fly over it.” (As it happens, Israel leads the world in the kind of technology needed to build such a wall.) There’s more to the plan than this, but this gives you the gist of it. The withdrawal would take place over time, but in the end you would be left with two sealed-off borders and a barrier that is actually shorter than the one Israel is currently building.

The beauty of the proposal is that it has something for everyone to hate. Settlers, especially religious Zionists, obviously want no part of it. The same is true of their American supporters, including the folks who might be dubbed “dispensationalist Zionists.” But the defense of these settlements requires the use of more IDF resources than Israel needed to defeat Egypt, its biggest foe, in the Six-Day War.

And the Palestinians, who have been encouraged to maintain the highly improbable dream (fantasy?) of the “right of return” by the international community would complain, as would the kind of people for whom criticism of Israel is just another expression of anti-Semitism.

Is van Creveld’s proposal the “best” one? I think so. Even if you don’t, it’s worth your consideration, especially during this election season when politicians in both parties are going to make promises and proposals concerning Israel the consequences of which they won’t have to live with. After all, it’s not our sword in the salt water.


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