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What Victory Looks Like

Israel's enemies will not be permanently defeated in a great moment on the battlefield. True peace will not be created by a magical moment in the negotiating room.
Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal Adviser

There is no shortage to the threats facing the Jewish State. We open the newspaper and are overwhelmed by bad news. A crisis that could consume the headlines for weeks in some countries can materialize then disappear on Internet news sites in Israel in an afternoon.

A corruption scandal, a nuclear threat, a forest fire for which we were woefully unprepared, a peace process going nowhere, a police chief accused of sexual assault, a terror attack – this is the background noise of our lives.

The conversations I have with friends and colleagues turn into attempts to outdo one another with pessimistic analysis. The pundits seem to argue not about whether the State is in danger but about which source of danger is more severe or more in need of urgent attention.

Make no mistake. The threats we face are real. We are paranoid for a reason. Nothing in our people’s past or present recommends taking them lightly. But I worry that the model of crisis response we have adopted and internalized may narrow our vision even while it sharpens our reflexes.

Weeping over the bitterness of our fate feels now like a national pastime. The Jewish people have a sovereign State to call our own, but it sometimes feels like we still have not left the shtetl. The words “existential threat” are used so often and so loosely now. I have heard them used to describe not just a nuclear-armed Iran, but the increase in crime, a settlement moratorium, the absorption of the children of foreign workers, and more. The Jew may have been taken out of exile, but the trauma, the language, and the mindset of the persecuted and vulnerable still lingers.

We have become so accustomed to crisis that if the crises facing Israel would, by some miracle, evaporate we may have to invent them. And that just may be the greatest crisis of all.

A crisis-driven existence is both narrow and shallow. It is about survival, not about living. It invites tactical responses, disguised as “solutions,” so that we can move to the next issue zapping across our screens. It is the political equivalent of emergency medicine, triaging problems instead of treating them. When in doubt, we establish a committee, issue a powerful press release, hold a summit, announce a new initiative, and remain committed to it just long enough for it to recede from the public consciousness. After all, we must conserve our energy for the next emergency.

The public sees a crisis, and we want a solution. We see an enemy, we want victory. And our leaders, sensing our need, promise what they cannot hope to deliver: a quick fix, an easy triumph on the battlefield, a lasting peace. Is it any wonder so many are disillusioned?

It seems more likely that very few of the problems facing Israel are susceptible to these kinds of solutions. In fact, the very word “solution” is misplaced. A country is not a math problem. The process is not linear. We are dealing with complex systems, conflicting aspirations, excruciating dilemmas, and forces beyond our control. People’s lives – their sense of well being – either improve or worsen; they are not “solved.” Israel is either more or less at peace, more or less secure. “Solutions” are for the Messiah.

Imagine if our political leaders spoke more like this. Not that the world was always against us and we must gird for perpetual war. Nor that salvation was within reach if only we embraced the right policy and made the right decisions. But simply that the problems we faced were complex, and that while there was much we could do to respond to our challenges and advance our interests, we could not dictate utopian outcomes.

Imagine if our leaders told Israel’s citizens that they were committed to improving Israel’s situation and the welfare of its people – using all the tools at our disposal – but there were some challenges they could not overcome. That we could build a more prosperous, more vibrant, more secure, more peaceful, more just society, but it would take time, sacrifice, planning and, yes, luck. That we could try to build consensus, but reconciling the views and aspirations of all segments of society was impossible, and real, difficult, unsatisfying choices had to be made.

Imagine, for example, if we stopped viewing a peace agreement either as a worthless illusion or as the guarantee of a problem-free future. But rather that the appropriate agreement, in the appropriate context – if it could be reached – could put Israel on a better path than that which it is now on, even if it involved heart-wrenching and risky decisions. That between failing to make peace and making a failed peace, there was another option that was not the best, it was just better. That the choices we made would not “solve” our problems but could improve Israel’s standing as a Jewish and democratic State, make Israel more secure, free up resources and energy, and empower more pragmatic regional forces, even if no action we take will make our enemies disappear or turn them into Zionists.

There are few Entebbe moments out there now. Victory does not come in the form of a flag planted on a hill. Israel’s enemies will not be permanently defeated in a great moment on the battlefield. And true peace will not be created by a magical moment in the negotiating room.

Victory today is more subtle, more boring, and more ephemeral than that. Victory is about limiting your adversary’s ability to dictate the agenda. It is the capacity to act to advance your interests, and undermine the capacity and the intent of your enemy to thwart your progress. It is about having the confidence and courage to think about your negotiating partner’s victory speech, not just your own – because you know that without it no win is sustainable. It is about the messy business of power and governance, not the futile pursuit of cost-free, perfect “solutions.” And it comes less in grand photogenic moments than in daily efforts – to stay the course, to avoid paralysis and tunnel vision, to revisit assumptions, to choose well between sub-optimal alternatives and to act upon them.

Israel is the State that the Jewish people need. Victory is the opportunity and the ongoing effort to build the society we want. Victory is the ability not to allow crisis to consume us or our enemies to define us. It is the slow, steady even if faltering, arc of progress toward a Jewish and democratic society we want our children to be part of and to be proud of. It is the move toward a vibrant and profound Jewish sovereign existence that attracts world Jewry not because of crisis or guilt, but because of their search for a meaningful and compelling life.

The victories of generals or of peacemakers – even when they occur – are momentary. They can create the space for real change, for genuine triumph, but they do not fill it. That is a more intensive, more thankless task. It is the task of educators and social entrepreneurs, of parents, philosophers, and responsible businessman. It is the task of those preoccupied with answering just one question: what kind of Jewish State do we want to have? It is a task for which our Jewish tradition of constant inquiry and individual responsibility is perfectly suited, and for which the tremendous talent and human potential of Israel’s population is more than ready.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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