Power and Survival: Some pertinent reflections on Israel's Strategic Future

Louis Rene Beres - Professor of International Law

Department of Political Science - Purdue University

Date: July 16, 1999



Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote of not being dead as the essence of power. Confronted with what he called "the terror at the fact of death," humankind - individually and collectively - seeks above all else "to remain standing." In the final analysis, it is those who remain upright (however temporarily) who are victorious. It is these fortunate ones, who have "diverted" death to others, who have power.


There is a lesson here for states as well as for individual persons, and for the State of Israel in particular. The situation of survival is the central situation of power. Yet, as the Middle East Peace Process makes Israel's survival more and more problematic, this misnamed Process now deprives Israel of its power. Left to proceed, this Process will permit Israel's enemies to enjoy a triumph that still remains concealed, the triumph experienced by the living person who is confronted by one who is dying.


I refer to the triumph of power. Israel's enemies understand this power. Israel does not. Believing, naively, in a common international obligation to preserve life, Jerusalem fails to understand that death is identified by its enemies as a zero-sum event. It follows that anything done to sustain Israel's survival is necessarily, for these enemy states, a threat to their own continued "life" and a diminution of their own most essential power. Conversely, anything that is done to eliminate Israel enhances their own collective life and augments their own collective power. What is more, because of the intimate associations between collectivity and individual, the perceived enemy life-advantages of Israeli death and dying that are spawned by the Peace Process are enjoyed doubly.


"Normally" the living person never considers himself more powerful than when he faces the dead person; here the living one comes as close as he can to feelings of immortality. The living state, in similar fashion, never regards itself as more powerful than when it confronts the "death" of an enemy state. Only slightly less power-giving are the feelings that arise from confrontation with the "dying" of this enemy state, precisely the feelings concerning Israel now generated in Arab capitals and in Iran by the Middle East Peace Process. In both cases, individual and collective, convention and good taste require that zero-sum feelings about death and power be properly suppressed. Such feelings are not to be flaunted, but they are vital nonetheless.


In world politics, power is so closely attached to the terror of death that it has been overlooked altogether. As a result, students of world politics continue to focus foolishly on epiphenomena, on ideologies, on territories, on the implements of warfare. It is not that these factors are unimportant to power (indeed, they are not) but that they are of secondary or reflected importance.


During war, the individual soldier, who ordinarily cannot experience real power in peacetime, is offered an opportunity at such experience. The presence of dead men here cannot be minimized. It is the central fact of war. The soldier who is surrounded by corpses and knows that he is not one of them is imbued with the radiance of invulnerability, with the aspect of monumental power. In like fashion, the state which commands these soldiers to kill and not to die themselves "feels" similar power at the removal of its collective adversary. This surviving state, like the surviving warrior, is indisputably a very source of power.


These points that I am making are hardly fashionable; rather, they appear barbarous, almost uncivilized. But I am seeking not to prescribe behavior for states, but merely to describe such behavior. True observations may be objectionable, but they are no less true.


In an apparent paradox, Israel's nonstate enemies also seek to "remain standing" vis-a-vis the Jewish State, to seek power in the life-or- death struggle against a particularly despised other. I say "apparent paradox" here because some of Israel's terrorist enemies seem not only unconcerned to remain standing, but seek specifically to die themselves. Indeed, as we have witnessed the dreadful terrorist suicide attacks against buses and markets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ramat Gan, it would appear that the perpetrators actually "love death." Consider, for example, a statement by Jamal Abdel Hamid Yussef, explaining operations of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades (military wing of Hamas) in Gaza: "Our suicide operations are a message...that our people love death. Our goal is to die for the sake of God, and if we live we want to humiliate Jews and trample on their necks."


What is most important to understand here is that "to die for the sake of God" is, above all, not to die at all. By dying in the "divinely commanded" act of killing Jews (Jews, not Israelis), the Hamas terrorist actually seeks to conquer death (which he fears with special terror) by living forever. In this eternal life, Hamas videotapes reveal, there will be rivers of honey and 72 brides for each hero "martyred" fighting the enemies of God.


Hence, the "love of death" described by the Hamas nonstate enemy of Israel is the ironic consequent of an all-consuming wish to avoid death. Since the death that this enemy "loves" is merely temporary and temporal, leading in "fact" to a permanent reprieve from death, accepting it as a tactical expedient is an easy matter. If, however, the death of the individual Muslim body in holy war against the Jew were not expected to ensure authentic life ever-after, its immense attractions would surely be reversed.


So, Israel's nonstate terrorist enemies, in the fashion of its state enemies, also seek to "remain standing," and to believe that this objective can be realized only when Israel - as the Jew in macrocosm - has become the dead man lying down. When the civilized and decent human being watching the evening news about the latest bus bombing in Israel asks incredulously, "Why do they do this?" there is a correct answer: They do this out of passion for the ultimate form of power; the greater the number of Jewish corpses, the more powerful they feel. Real power, as a zero-sum commodity, is to gain in aliveness through the death of enemies.


There is more. An enemy of Israel, state or nonstate, cannot possibly kill as many Israelis as his passion for survival may demand. This means that he may seek to induce or direct others to meet this passion. As a practical matter, this points toward an undeniable impulse for genocide, an impulse that could be actualized by future resort to higher-order forms of terrorism and/or unconventional forms of war.


Israelis have always been subject to terrorist attacks, especially since the onset of a so-called "Peace Process." Yet, while these attacks have been painful and costly, they pale in contrast to what is still possible. From the standpoint of potential harms, these sorts of "ordinary" assaults cannot even begin to compare to the destructive potential of chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism.




It follows that Israeli strategists must prepare, now, for such contingencies.


There are, says Camus, "crimes of passion and crimes of logic." But the boundary between these crimes is often unclear, vague, not easily defined. Understood in terms of the expanding terrorist threat to Israel (an expansion generated in large measure by the Oslo and Wye River Agreements), the pertinent crimes display both passion and logic. While the level of passion has certainly increased, there has been no corresponding diminution of logic. On the contrary, the growing Hamas passion - some would call it a heightened religious fervor - has been entirely congruent with logic, enhancing Israeli fears and hastening Israeli capitulations.


Over time, however, the terrorists will come to realize that they must do "more" in order to achieve their objectives. Here, logic will spawn new passions which, in turn, will reinforce logic. Combining careful cost- benefit calculations with Islamic frenzy, the terrorists will reason that bus and market bombings have now become old-fashioned and that maintaining "adequate" Israeli levels of fear calls for new and higher forms of destructiveness. Unless the Israeli authorities have anticipated such escalations of violence and are prepared to dominate the resultant escalatory process ("escalation dominance" is a familiar concept to strategic analysts), the number of Israeli victims could become unimaginably large.


Significantly, the danger of unconventional terrorism could be great even in the absence of logic. Indeed, this danger might even be greater if Hamas becomes more and more oriented exclusively to crimes of passion. Animated only by the call of jihad and operating beyond the rules of rationality in weighing decisional alternatives, the terrorists could opt for chemical, biological or even nuclear destruction apart from any considered calculations of geopolitical advantage. Here, violence would be celebrated for its own sake, and a numbing irrationality would immobilize all Israeli hopes for terrorist restraint. As for deterrence of terrorist attack, it would be fruitless by definition.


The "blood-dimmed tide is loosed," says the poet Yeats, "and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned." From the start, all anti-Israel terrorists, especially Fatah, have accepted the idea of violence as purposeful because of its effect upon the perpetrator. Galvanized by what they have long described as a "battle of vengeance," these terrorists have seen in their attacks not merely the obvious logic of influencing the victims, but also the Fanonian logic of "purifying" the Palestinians, the logic of passion.


"Violence," says Franz Fanon in THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH, "is a purifying force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from despair and inaction. It makes him fearless and restores his self-respect." This idea has long been at the heart of Fatah doctrine, and is now very much in fashion among Hamas activists. An early Fatah pamphlet, "The Revolution and Violence, the Road to Victory," informs the reader that violence serves not only to injure the opposition but also to transform the "revolutionary." It is, says the pamphlet, "a healing medicine for all our people's diseases." How much more healing, we must ask, and how much better for the Palestinian's self-respect, if it kills thousands or even tens of thousands of Israelis rather than dozens. Here the reader may recall the huge crowds of Palestinians cheering on rooftops during Saddam's 1991 Scud attacks on Tel-Aviv and Haifa, cheers urging Iraqi mass killing of Israeli civilians.


Regarding power and survival, terror has an impact beyond incidence. It has a distinct "quality," a potentially decisive combination of venue and destructiveness that cannot be ignored and that must be appropriately countered. Linked to a particular species of fear, this quality of terror must represent an absolutely crucial variable in any society's war against terrorism.




Let us imagine, in this connection, the qualitative difference, for Israel, between bus or market bombings and the lethal irradiation of thousands of Tel Avivians or Jerusalemites, either by small nuclear explosions or by radiological contamination. Clearly, the difference would be considerable.


Although it is certainly conceivable that a terrorist resort to higher-order destruction would prove to be counter-productive, this does not necessarily suggest a corresponding terrorist reluctance to undertake such an escalation.


After all, if they are "logical" the terrorists might not forsee such counter-productiveness and if they are "passionate" they might not care.


Writing about that species of fear that arises from tragedy, Aristotle emphasized that such fear "demands a person who suffers undeservedly" and that it must be felt by "one of ourselves." This fear, or terror, has little or nothing to do with our private concern for an impending misfortune to others, but rather from our perceived resemblance to the victim. We feel terror on our own behalf; we fear that we may become the objects of commiseration. Terror, in short, is fear referred back to ourselves. Naturally, therefore, the quality of this terror is at its highest point when this fear is especially acute and where suffering acutely is especially likely. And what could possibly create more acute fear of probable victimization than the threat of chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism?


Israel, of course, must take heed. Facing certain terrible crimes of logic, it can communicate to Hamas that Jerusalem is prepared, strategically, to dominate escalation, and that terrorist excursions into higher-order destructiveness would elicit anything but capitulation. Facing certain terrible crimes of passion, it can only confront the enemy in advance. Insofar as an increasingly impassioned Hamas armed with unconventional weapons might not be susceptible to deterrent threats, the only reasonable course would lie in some apt forms of preemption, of what the counterterrorist literature routinely refers to as "proactive measures." Although this seems obvious enough, it is, presently, exceedingly implausible that Israeli officials would authorize such efforts at anticipatory self-defense against terrorism, especially in the midst of the "Peace Process." Proceeding now with the final stages of the Oslo Accord could render the quality of anti-Israel terror overwhelming and the quality of Israeli counterterrorism altogether impotent.


Israel has much to learn. But before its leaders can fully understand the nature of enemy intentions and capabilities, they must first understand the connections between power and survival. Once it is understood that enemy definitions of the former are contingent upon Israel's loss of the latter, these leaders will finally be positioned intellectually to take remedial action.


The true goal of Israel's enemies - state and terrorist - is as grotesque as it is generally unrecognized. It is to be left standing while Israel has been made to disappear. These enemies must survive Israel so that Israel does not survive them. They cannot conceivably survive together. So long as Israel exists, they cannot survive themselves in any meaningful sense. So long as Israel exists, no matter how cooperative it may be, they will not feel safe, they will not feel powerful.




Without such recognition, the self-destructive strategic thought prevailing in Israel's government and universities will continue to be taken seriously, a circumstance that could have genuinely fatal survival outcomes for the Jewish State. With such recognition, however, this "thought" could be revealed widely for what it really is, the ill-conceived product of "experts" who misunderstand power and survival.


What a mistake it is for Israel to believe that Reason governs the world.



The true source of governance here is Power, and power is ultimately the conquest of Death.


This conquest, which we have shown to display a zero-sum quality among Israel's enemies, is not by any means limited to conflicts in the Middle East. Rather, it is a generic matter, a more or less universal effort that is made especially manifest between Israel and its enemies.


On this generic matter, consider the remark made by Eugene Ionesco in his Journal in 1966. Describing killing as an affirmation of one's own survival, Ionesco says:


“I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me. Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him, I have killed death. My enemy's death cannot be held against me, it is no longer a source of anguish, if I killed him with the approval of society; that is the purpose of war. Killing is a way of relieving one's feelings, of warding off one's own death.”


Significantly, while Israel's enemies accept the zero-sum linkages between power and survival, Israel apparently does not. While this may certainly suggest that Israel stands on a higher moral plane than its enemies, it also places the Jewish State at a marked strategic disadvantage, one that will make it difficult to "remain standing." Logically, this consequential asymmetry between Israel and its enemies may be addressed by reducing enemy emphases on power-survival connections and/or by increasing Israeli emphases on power-survival connections. The first option is effectively impossible; the second would require extraordinary national excursions from idealism toward Realpolitik.


Must Israel become a barbarous state in order to endure? Must the Jewish State "learn" to identify true power with its survival over others, a survival that cannot abide the endurance of its enemies? By no means!




LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and seeks to rescue Israel from itself. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with strategic studies and international law. His work is well- known to past and present Prime Ministers; to the intelligence communities; to the IDF General Staff and to the Knesset leadership.

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