Pith Helmet Policy

Shavit, starring as the young Churchill, a fired-up war correspondent, asks: 'Do you have a definition of victory?' Ya'alon, playing General Kitchener, replies: 'It's an existential threat, my son. It must be seared into their minds that they will never defeat us with terror.'

In my mind's eye, I see the chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, with his interviewer Ari Shavit, standing before the crumbling walls of Khartoum. The year is 1898. Coming toward them is an army of raging natives - tens of thousands of bloodthirsty Arabs, waving their spears on high. Shavit, starring as the young Churchill, a fired-up war correspondent in a pith helmet, asks excitedly: "Do you have a definition of victory?" Ya'alon, playing General Kitchener, replies from under his bushy mustache: "It's an existential threat, my son. It must be seared into their minds that they will never defeat us with terror and violence."

To his credit, let it be said that Ya'alon has infused new life in the tired sameness of Israeli political discourse. In one breath, he has blown away the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin - that same strategic outlook which guided Rabin in all his political endeavors. From the time he took office, during his first term as prime minister, and even more during the second, Rabin insisted that Palestinian terror was not an existential threat to the State of Israel. He saw it more as a headache for the police. However painful and unpleasant, it never crossed the boundaries of ordinary defense. On Rabin's list of existential threats were the standing armies of our Arab neighbors, especially when they joined forces against Israel. More remote hostile countries could also pose such a threat, he warned, if they got their hands on nuclear or chemical weapons.

The Palestinians, by contrast, were always weak in the face of Israel's military might. Even today, despite all the terrorist attacks and suicide bombers, they remain weak from every objective standpoint - unless we ourselves make them strong through destructive and subjective self-persuasion. They do not have the power to destroy us unless we label them an "existential threat" and empower them to do so with words that come out of our own mouths. The Palestinians may be weak, but we will be handing them the tools of our own destruction if we believe, as Ya'alon would like us to, that the only way to remove the "existential threat" that hovers over us is to "sear" messages into their minds.

Why? Because if the chief of staff is correct in his analysis and conclusions, the next question is: What happens if they don't agree to be seared? What if we don't succeed in defeating the Palestinians despite all our prodigious searing efforts? When the British tried to sear us back in Mandatory times, it didn't work. Since then, many foreign regimes throughout the world have tried to sear other peoples - all without success.

According to Ya'alon's logic, if that should happen, we're dead. Because the threat is an existential one. So if we don't win - that's the end of us.

Rabin's legacy is not a matter of semantics or pure theory. It was critically important then, and it remains so now. To a large extent, it was the basis for the return to Zion and the establishment of the state. The founders of this country - even the most obtuse - saw and knew that there were Palestinians living in Palestine. But they assumed, rightly so, that the Jews would know how to handle them and eventually force them to accept a compromise.

This was the perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict underlying Rabin's decision to go to Oslo, and also Barak's offer of compromise to the Palestinians (which was only 30 years late in coming).

When Arafat turned down Israel's proposal, the next step, according to the Rabin legacy, was for Israel to do what it had to do unilaterally, until the Palestinians got smart and were ready to reconsider the proposal under new leadership.

But Ya'alon, adopting a conception that has ensnared many people, is demanding that "the IDF be allowed to win." "Fences and withdrawal can wait," he says. He talks about keeping the Palestinians from scoring any achievements, as if the right to define such words is ours, and ours alone. We will define what is meant by "achievement," by "staying power," by "victory." With his dogmatic claim that the Palestinians are an existential threat that must be fought and won, he and his ilk are imposing on Israel an open-ended "searing war," as time (i.e., demography) works steadily against us.

How could intelligent people like Ya'alon be swept up in such utter folly - and drag us along with them? The answer lies somewhere in the irrational provinces of messianism, which is the real esprit du temps in Israel today. The chief of staff openly declares his loathing of all forms of messianism, but his thinking, and the terminology he uses, are influenced by the messianic underpinnings of the religious right-wing ideology that sees our conflict with the Palestinians as "existential." This is the only way, of course, to justify occupation and settlement. The tragedy is that Ya'alon himself does not justify these things - at least not consciously. And yet he, and so many others, find themselves caught up, without even noticing, in the myth of existential danger and the legend of "searing," employing language that sounds like it comes from another era entirely: the Kitchener era.

P.S. - Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener defeated the Sudanese rebels and the British Empire continued to hold on to Sudan by force for many years to come. Until it realized that it would never succeed in searing the message into the minds of the spear-throwers, and, truth be told, it really had no interest in doing so.