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Geography, chronology, and Israel’s survival

By Louis René Beres


Modern science has spawned revolutionary breakthroughs in the essential meanings of space and time. Still, such major breakthroughs in human consciousness remain distant from the often overlapping worlds of diplomacy and international relations. This disregarded distance is dangerous, and, potentially, catastrophic. In the Middle East, especially, there is ample room for needed reconciliations between science and diplomacy. Much of the relentless struggle between Israel and its neighbors is about space. Largely overlooked, however, is that this conflict is also about time. For one reason or another, scholars and policy-makers have typically ignored the palpable impact, both real and potential, of chronology.

Here, time could be power. For example, the intangible idea of felt time, or time-as-lived, which contrasts with humanity’s uniformly accepted idea of clock time, has its intellectual origins in ancient Israel. Already rejecting measurable chronologies as nothing more than a sterile linear progression, the early Hebrews approached time with remarkably advanced intellectual sophistication, with the notion of time as a qualitative experience. For them, time was understood as subjective, inseparable from any personally-infused content.

The Jewish prophetic vision was one of a community existing under a transcendent God and in time. Oddly, the significance of space — today, of course, we must speak politically and strategically, of land — stemmed exclusively from something markedly theoretical and impractical. The nexus of sacred events that had allegedly taken place within ancient Israel’s divinely-delineated boundaries had little or nothing to do with protecting the Jewish Commonwealth.

Western wall in Jerusalem. Photo by Wayne McLean. Creative Commons License.

For present-day Israel, the space-time relationship has two core dimensions, both of which now need to be better understood, in Jerusalem, and also in Washington. First, further territorial surrenders by Israel would reduce the amount of time Israel has left to resist catastrophic war, terrorism, and conceivably genocide. Second, any such surrenders, especially when considered together or synergistically, could provide added time for Israel’s existential enemies to await an optimal, or ideally perfect, attack opportunity.

For Israel, the strategic importance of time can be expressed not only by its nuanced relationship to space, but also by its undimmed role as a storehouse of Jewish memory. Perhaps, by conscientiously recalling the immobilizing vulnerabilities of Jewish life in the world, Israel’s leaders could better prepare to step back from what must appear alarmingly as a very bad dream. To be useful, this eye-opening nightmare would need to recall a perilous sequence of national compromises and forfeitures. “Yesterday,” warned Samuel Beckett in his legendary analysis of Proust, “is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably a part of us, heavy and dangerous.” At times, the poet may offer better ideas than the military strategist.

Iris palaestina. Photo by MathKnight and Zachi Evenor. 2010. Creative Commons License.
Israel must immediately care to understand the very different ways in which particular countries and terror groups might themselves choose to live within time. If, for example, certain terrorist groups were now willing to accept an identifiably short time horizon in their search for a cataclysmic end to Israel, the Israeli military response to anticipated enemy aggressions would have to be correspondingly swift. More concretely, any such perceived willingness would plausibly heighten Israel’s incentive to undertake certain defensive first-strikes, or preemptions. In the language of international law, these strikes, if permissible, could express ‘anticipatory self-defense.’ This represents a binding part of customary jurisprudence that has its origins in an 1837 case, known formally as The Caroline.

If, however, it would seem that this apocalyptic time horizon were authentically “long,” Israel’s policy response could be substantially less urgent. On behalf of its indispensable security, Israel could then choose to rely more upon the relatively passive and problematic strategic dynamics of deterrence and defense.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a suicide bomber is afraid of death, so afraid that he is enthusiastically willing to “kill” himself (or herself) as a means of overcoming individual mortality. With this tactic, whether in Gaza, or Sinai, or Lebanon, certain terrorists will judge themselves able to reorient chronology from an intolerable and inevitable personal extinction, to a glorious and divinely-promised life everlasting.

This chronologic conceptualization has notably serious implications for foreign policy and peace. Accordingly, Israel could benefit from “decoding” a growing and pertinent mindset, one that would somehow identify “suicide” with eternal life. The suicide bomber sees himself or herself as a religious sacrificer. Israel must learn how to change a widespread enemy understanding that closely links heroic “martyrdom” to a conquest of time.

Moreover, Israel must reluctantly acknowledge that there can even be “suicide states.” Today, the most obvious candidate for any such a fearful designation would be Iran, especially because this nuclearizing country is expressly committed to an apocalyptic narrative of Shiite Islam. A suicide-state could be perfectly rational, so long as its considered expressions of mass-murder and absorbed retaliation were both presumed to be gainful.

Jerusalem’s immediate policy response must be to somehow convince prospective suicide bombers, both individuals and entire states, that any intended “sacrifice” of Jews or of the Jewish State will never elevate them above the fixedly mortal limits of time. For this to work, however, would-be enemy sacrificers will first need to be convinced that: (1) they are not now living in profane time; and (2) that every sacrificial killing of “infidels” is an actual and consequential profanation of their one true faith.

This sort of persuasion will not be easy. It may even require the cooperation of certain leading Islamic clerics. For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will need to acknowledge enemy perceptions of space and time as utterly meaningful core visions, adversarial ideas that are preeminently religious and cultural in nature. Only then, when Israel finally understands that enemy notions of space and time are not genuinely political or jurisprudential, could Israel find itself on the correct path to Middle East peace.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism, and international law. He was Chair of Project Daniel, which presented its then-confidential report on Israel’s Strategic Future to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 16 January 2003. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, Professor Beres lectures and publishes widely on issues of Israeli security, strategy, and deterrence. He is a regular contributor to OUPblog.

If you are interested in this subject, you may be interested in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time, edited by Craig Callender. As the study of time has flourished in the physical and human sciences, the philosophy of time has come into its own as a lively and diverse area of academic research. Philosophers investigate not just the metaphysics of time, and our experience and representation of time, but the role of time in ethics and action, and philosophical issues in the sciences of time, especially with regard to quantum mechanics and relativity theory. This Handbook presents twenty-three specially written essays by leading figures in their fields. It is the first comprehensive collaborative study of the philosophy of time.

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