Op-ed: Day 173 of the war

Silver linings in an ongoing nightmare

When a visiting group on a solidarity mission wondered if I had any good news

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group lead a Purim parade in Jerusalem, March 25, 2024. The banner, a reference to the imperatives to see the hostages released, literally translates as: Redeeming the captives is a great commandment. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion is third from left. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group lead a Purim parade in Jerusalem, March 25, 2024. The banner, a reference to the imperatives to see the hostages released, literally translates as: Redeeming the captives is a great commandment. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion is third from left. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

I met with a group of Jewish leaders on a solidarity visit to Israel on Tuesday night, some of them here for the first time since October 7, and tried to give them a sense of what Israel has been going through since that blackest of days in the history of our modern state.

Touching on issues I’ve covered in these columns for almost six months, I told them that the scale of the political and military leadership failure that enabled the Hamas invasion and barbaric slaughter remains inexplicable and unfathomable; that we may never fully get over October 7; that while the IDF’s standing troops and reservists are fighting cohesively to dismantle Hamas as an organized army in Gaza, many of Israel’s pre-October internal divides have resurfaced.

We discussed the extent to which the conflict is widely misrepresented abroad — that October 7 has been airbrushed away; that Hamas’s misrepresentations are widely disseminated, including on issues as basic as its death toll summations, and that its manifest abuse of hospitals and mosques as military bases is glossed over; that Israel is blamed for the deaths of the noncombatants Gaza’s terror government uses to protect its gunmen.

We talked a little about the apparent growing inevitability of war in the north.

Israeli forces check a building that was hit by a Hezbollah rocket in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel near the Lebanon border, on March 27, 2024. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

There were lighter moments, but it was a pretty bleak presentation and exchange, reflecting the reality and the group’s already wide knowledge.

But at the close, one of them asked me for some “good news” — to end the night on a positive and constructive note, or at least as near to that as I could manage. And I found myself doing so with self-surprising emotion.

Because, amid the ongoing nightmare of October 7 and a war we have yet to decisively win, facing monstrous terrorist armies on two borders, battling to survive within an increasingly intolerant international context, and led by failed, dysfunctional leadership, much about this country remains inspirational.

Our people are widely resilient, competent, wise and patriotic — qualities we deserve and do not have in our current leadership. We rebuilt our ancient homeland in spectacularly unpromising circumstances, focused innovation and inspiration to make it thrive, and have been fighting as one to defend it and restore its security through six hellish months.

Three-quarters of the terrorist army that our leaders unconscionably allowed Hamas to establish next door, and which Hamas believed Israel would never have the guts to confront, has been dismantled. The IDF, which swore as the ground offensive took shape that it would never send troops into the Hamas death-trap tunnels, is battling the gunmen in their lairs, having belatedly recognized their extent and sophistication and the need to tackle the terror-state underground.

This combination image shows drawings made by 5-year-old hostage Emilia Aloni found in a tunnel in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, on the left, and an area where hostages were held in the tunnel, in images released by the IDF on January 20, 2024. Emilia was released, with her mother, during a truce in late November. (Israel Defense Forces)

One way or another, I said, the IDF will have to target Hamas’s four battalions in Rafah, where it may also well be that the barbaric Yahya Sinwar and his key cronies are holed up surrounded by hostages. Israel has to dismantle the Hamas army so that it does not rise again. So that all the residents of what is laughably called the “periphery” — perhaps an 80-minute drive from where I sit in Jerusalem — can safely rebuild their homes and their lives. So that other enemies are deterred. And, yes, so that we, as victors, get to write the history of this war, and to emphasize that Israel destroyed a terrorist army, albeit one widely supported by the Gaza populace, in a conflict murderously imposed upon it by the government of a territory captured in war from which Israel had withdrawn and eschewed all claims.

Somehow, this remarkable people of ours, hundreds of thousands of whom constitute its army, I stressed to the group, has managed to both fight the war and maintain some semblance of what used to be normality.

How long can the Israeli economy survive this crisis, one of the group asked me. I don’t know the macro answer to that, but I know anecdotally of soldiers in elite units who are transitioning, insanely, from swerving death in the Hamas hellholes of Gaza of a morning, to managing and staffing their innovative biomed and high-tech startups in central Israel by mid-afternoon.

I recalled writing four months ago about the group of soldiers I met at Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, literally a stone’s throw from the Gaza border, whose officer had left his tech job in Tel Aviv when called up to serve and barely had a moment to look back, and who had telephoned his Denver-based American lone-soldier former colleague from their original standing army period a decade and a half ago, who immediately jumped on a plane to join him, with the support of his wife, pregnant with their fourth child.

This is a country, I reminded the group and myself on Tuesday night, that did not do the “logical” thing — leaving — when pitched into a strategic onslaught of suicide bombings in the Second Intifada, but hung tough and battled through it. And while there are certainly some Israelis who have moved away in the past few months, vast numbers of ex-IDF troops living abroad rushed back to Israel to bolster the reserves, including many who had not been called up.

Ultra-Orthodox men after clashes during a protest outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, as a group of male and female soldiers stand behind them, March 4, 2024 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

After decades of mounting untenability, our dreadful political leadership is still refusing to put an end to the distortion of Orthodox Judaism under which the Haredi community generally performs neither military nor national service, but here, too, I predicted, there can only be good news, however much longer it takes to arrive: The stakes are now too high, the IDF too strained, the non-Haredi reservists too outrageously discriminated against, for the fastest-growing sector of the populace to be excused its share in the responsibilities of protecting this country. And if the current Haredi political leaders do not recognize the need to abandon their irreligious anti-conscription revolution, and their coalition partners do not end the inequitable indulgence, then other leaders must and surely will step up to ensure a resolution.

That goes for the political leadership in general, I told the group: The hopelessly self-interested Benjamin Netanyahu — the emblem and the prime address for the October 7 failure, now assiduously deepening a rift with the essential but no-longer thoroughly reliable Biden administration and alienating other erstwhile and potential supporters — cannot possibly put this country together after the war. Indeed, his most every move and deed widens our divisions.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield votes abstain on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, during a United Nations Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York on March 25, 2024. (Angela Weiss / AFP)

Can it really be that he was prepared to see Benny Gantz arrested on his visit to the UK last month? Is it possible that he ditched Israel’s most effective public diplomacy asset, at his wife’s instigation, because before the war Eylon Levy used to demonstrate against the prime minister’s efforts to destroy our judicial independence? Apparently so. And Netanyahu certainly prevented his two close aides from traveling to the US this week to try to coordinate the necessary Rafah operation, as some kind of ostensible punishment for the Biden administration’s damaging non-veto of the UN’s ceasefire call, when the only people and interests he’s actually punishing are Israel’s.

Anecdotally, again, I vouchsafed on Tuesday night, I know that among the Israelis called back into the reserves these past months are more than a few who regret not having stayed in the IDF after their mandatory service, when they went off to successful private enterprise, and wonder whether they might have helped shatter the security establishment’s complacency and misjudgments through years of pre-October 7 Gaza policy. Some of them have also concluded that national politics is too existentially vital to leave to this crop of failed politicians.

More than a decade ago, protests over the high cost of living saw a small number of activists enter national politics, without substantive impact. This time, I said, I believe there will be many more new entrants to our politics, with hopefully greater impact, capable of mastering the two necessary skill sets: defeating the poisonous political machines of the likes of Netanyahu to get themselves elected, and then rising to govern Israel with consensual national interest as their only lodestar.

Nobody should doubt that this is what the Israeli mainstream wants and needs. It’s why Gantz’s National Unity party is soaring in the polls, with his colleague Gadi Eisenkot at his side: two former chiefs of staff, Eisenkot having lost his son during the war on a mission to retrieve the bodies of hostages, neither a polished political operator, with statesmanship and an old-fashioned commitment to the good of Israel as their main calling cards.

Jews attend a prayer gathering for the return of the hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

A final question asked by the group concerned the hostages. There can be no victory for Israel without their return, I argued, at almost but not any price. Indeed, both the declared key aims of the war must be achieved: the return of the hostages and the dismantling of Hamas so that it is unable to rise again, with the hostages the more urgent of the intertwined imperatives.

We ended with a brief discussion of life in the Diaspora — spiking antisemitism worldwide, and the revival, after decades in abeyance, of a reality in which to calmly identify as a Jew, much less a Zionist, is once again an act of will. They cited a silver lining in that many Jews are rediscovering and/or reasserting that Jewish identity, and battling one way or another — in the media, through demonstrations, in their choices of universities and activism on campus — to challenge and marginalize the haters, and advocate among the ill-informed.

They were here on a solidarity visit, this admirable group, so they didn’t need me to encourage them to look to Israel as a place to which they are connected and of which — without whitewashing its faults, or ignoring its dangerous extremists, or minimizing its struggles to survive as a majority Jewish democracy — they should feel proud.

I told them it would be wonderful if some of them wanted to move here by choice, as I did 40 years ago. I hoped and don’t want to believe they will need to come here of necessity.

Israel must be here either way, of course. Good news? That is the will of this people.

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