OpinionIsrael at War

Israel’s understanding of time

To what extent could a greater conceptual awareness of time generate calculable security advantages for the beleaguered Jewish state?

An illustrative image of a sundial. Source: DeepAI.
An illustrative image of a sundial. Source: DeepAI.
Louis Rene Beres (Credit: Purdue University)
Louis Rene Beres
Louis Rene Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University.

For Israel, it’s all about chronology. Time represents both the most critical determinant of Israel’s survival and the context within which such survival must be ensured. As with an individual human being, time is also the reciprocal of death. This vital relationship is currently most conspicuous regarding Hamas and Hezbollah, but it is most urgently meaningful regarding war with Iran.

For Israel, successful geopolitics will necessarily center on this impending war. Whether the expected conflict will be sudden or incremental, its consequences could prove existential. Of greatest significance for Israel will be avoiding a nuclear war. Inter alia, this objective will be contingent on Jerusalem’s “use of time.”

What can these ambiguous observations mean for Israel in operational terms? What might be learned about the estimable probabilities of an unmanageable war with Iran? Hezbollah’s fighting capacities are greater than those of all other jihadist terror organizations, singularly and cumulatively. These belligerent capacities present a strategic threat to Israel even apart from their Iranian backing.

A key question now arises for Israel: To what extent could a greater conceptual awareness of time generate calculable security advantages for the beleaguered Jewish state?

Though generally unrecognized, Hezbollah and Israel’s other principal terrorist adversaries define authentic victory from the bewildering standpoint of “power over death.” For all these recalcitrant foes, becoming a “martyr” (shahid) represents “power over time.” Accordingly, Jerusalem will need to think about how best to undermine such intangible but determinative notions of power.

In Jerusalem, “real-time” ought never to be interpreted solely in terms of clock measurements. But what would constitute a suitably personalized and policy-centered theory of time?  

Whether explicit or implicit, Israeli security analyses should contain theory-based elements of chronology. Israel’s many-sided struggle against war and terror will need to be conducted with more intellectually determined and nuanced concepts of time. Though seemingly “impractical,” such “felt time” or “inner time” conceptualizations could sometimes reveal more about Israel’s core survival problem than any easily decipherable measurements of clocks.

The pertinent notion of “felt time” or “time-as-lived” has its origins in ancient Israel. By rejecting time as a simple linear progression, the early Hebrews approached chronology as a qualitative experience. Once it had been dismissed as something that could submit only to quantitative measures, time began to be understood by seminal Jewish thinkers as a distinctly subjective quality. This view identified time as inseparable from its personally infused content.

In terms of current threats from Iran, Israeli planners should consider chronology not only at the most obvious operational levels (e.g., how much “time” before Iran becomes nuclear?), but also at the level of individual Iranian decision-makers (e.g., what do authoritative leaders in Tehran think about time in shaping their nuclear plans vis-à-vis Israel?).

From its beginnings, the Jewish prophetic vision was one of a community living “in time.” In this formative view, political space or geography was palpably important, but not because of territoriality. Instead, the relevance of particular geographic spaces stemmed from certain unique events that had presumably taken place within their boundaries.

It’s time to return to expressly tactical and strategic issues. For Israel, security policy enhancements should include support for “escalation dominance.” When Israel and Iran are engaged in continuous direct warfare, each adversary can be expected to seek primacy during unprecedented episodes of escalation but to accomplish this objective without heightening the risks of an existential conflict. Among other things, any such expectation would require mutual assumptions of enemy rationality.

There will be multiple particulars. If it could be determined that Iran and/or Hezbollah accept a short time horizon in their search for tangible “victory” over Israel, any Israeli response to enemy aggressions would have to be “swift” in the traditional sense. If it would seem that the presumed enemy time horizon was calculably longer, Jerusalem’s expected response could still be more or less incremental. For Israel, this would mean relying more on the relatively passive dynamics of military deterrence and military defense than on any active strategies of nuclear war fighting.

In the final analysis, the worst case for Israel would be to face an irrational Iran. Moreover, this could happen simultaneously with the appearance of the Hezbollah suicide bomber in microcosm: the flesh-and-blood individual terrorist. Of special interest to Israel’s prime minister and general staff, therefore, should be the hidden time horizons of this jihadist suicide bomber. In essence, this self-defiling terror-criminal is so afraid of “not being” that any plan for “suicide” will be intended as personal death avoidance. Prima facie, such a plan is not “only” literal nonsense; it is also patent cowardice.

An aspiring suicide bomber opposing Israel sees himself or herself as a religious sacrificer. This signals a jihadist adversary’s desperate hope to escape from time that lacks any “sacred” meaning. The relevant jihadist adversary could be an individual Hezbollah terrorist, the sovereign state of Iran or both acting in tandem.

What should Israel do with all such informed understandings of its Islamist adversaries’ concept of time? Jerusalem’s immediate policy response should be to convince both aspiring Hezbollah suicide bombers and Iranian national leaders that their intended “sacrifices” could never elevate them or their societies above the immutably mortal limits of time. This will be an intellectual problem, not a political problem.

 Israeli policy-makers will need to recognize certain dense problems of chronology as policy-relevant quandaries. They will also need to acknowledge to themselves that any plausible hopes for national security and “escalation dominance” should be informed by reason. In Jerusalem, all ordinary considerations of domestic politics and global geopolitics will need to be understood as both reflective and transient.

“As earthlings,” comments Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut, “all have had to believe whatever clocks said.” As necessary fonts of national security decision-making, Israeli strategic thinkers now have it in their power to look beyond the simplifying hands of clocks and investigate more policy-purposeful meanings of time. For Jerusalem, exercising such latent intellectual power could offer a survival posture of potentially unimaginable value. In the final analysis, Israel must survive in a subjective time that is “felt” by its enemies while it is being measured by clocks.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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