The End of Restraint and the Return of Total War? • The Havok Journal

by Major Peter Mitchell

Charles De Gaulle once said of the rapid German invasion and conquest of France in the black days of May 1940 that, “It was a bolt of lightning that lit up the darkened sky and revealed the Third Republic in all its ghastly infirmity.” In the same way, the blaze of missiles and interceptors over Kyiv and Tel Aviv perhaps revealed similar weakness in the Pax Americana that has kept much of the world in relative peace since 1945. With both Israel and Russia both waging wars in spite of international outrage, should the US shake out of its lethargy and realize that the global court of opinion a thin veneer that only theoretically constrains actors?

The 2023 War in Gaza, provoked by the sudden Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th, will go down in history as one of the most disastrous wars of the 21st century, surpassing even the tremendous bloodshed seen in the on-going Russo-Ukraine War or the ethnic cleansing wrought by the vengeful Azeris upon the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. The ripples from Gaza are rapidly swelling into a worldwide tsunami of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiment that threatens to rip the ground out from under the feet of the Jewish people worldwide.

Israel’s strategic situation demands that it fight for its survival on five fronts: the first and most violently contested at present – the southern front along Gaza and the Sinai, the northern front with Lebanon and Syria, the central front along the West Bank and Jordan, the eastern front dominated by Iran and its proxies, and the western front, which is contested in the halls of government of Western countries.

The Israeli state of emergency and invasion of the Gaza Strip ordered by Prime Minister Netanyahu has temporarily papered over his fragile hold on power and pushed Hamas back from the very northern part of Gaza, but this grab for near-term security on Israel’s southern front has come at tremendous cost to the other four fronts.

Egypt refuses to take in potential refugees fleeing from Gaza, forcing the 2.1 million Palestinians living in the enclave to pile on top of each in a budding humanitarian catastrophe not seen in the region since the worst atrocities of the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians and Greeks. Jordan similarly refuses to take in more refugees from the rapidly deteriorating West Bank. Israel’s strategy to keep Saudi Arabia close to keep arch-enemy Iran at bay is in tatters. American bases in Syria and Iraq are under constant harassing fire by Iranian-backed proxies, who have cannily avoided thus far causing any direct American deaths in order to not provoke anything more than tit-for-tat bombings from Washington.

Israel is surrounded on all four fronts by vengeful and now-reunited enemies with youthful populations and grudges to settle, orchestrated by a remarkably patient and cunning Iran. Jewish immigration into Israel has sharply tapered off. Israel’s population is aging and having fewer children, the sole exceptions being Arabs and the Orthodox Jewish community – the majority of who regard the State of Israel lukewarmly at best. The inexorable jaws of geography and demography are closing. Behind it all lurks the nightmare scenario, the very real potential of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Outside of Israel in the Western world so critical to Israel’s continued survival, antisemitism is experiencing an unprecedented surge among young people, minorities and immigrants. Calls for a permanent ceasefire are growing in the US and France. The Jewish community in Europe and the United States is simultaneously concerned over the escalating situation in the Middle East and rising public displays of antisemitism, and deeply divided over Israel from both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. A small yet highly vocal minority of Jews from the left are calling for an immediate ceasefire, seeing Israel as an oppressive, patriarchal, colonialist state. From the right, the majority of Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews see Zionism as an incorrect secular approach, with only a slim 3% of American Orthodox and 10% of Israeli Orthodox  “who believe that it is God’s will that the Land of Israel be Jewish now.” The largest populations of political significant supporters of Israel in the United States are older liberal Jews, and pro-Zionist Evangelical Christians. Both these populations are rapidly shrinking.

There is no obvious off-ramp to the looming disaster. Netanyahu has said that the war will continue until all of the Gaza Strip is under direct Israeli military governance. He proclaimed the Gaza War is a war of “civilization against barbarism.” Gaza must be denazified and demilitarized. All Palestinians must be deprogramed. These conditions are so specific as warrant direct comparison with Vladimir Putin’s stated mission to “denazify and demilitarize” Ukraine.

It is in the best interests of his political survival that the war continues, because there is little chance that Netanyahu will be reelected after the state of emergency has passed. The longer that the war continues, the more world opinion will continue to turn against Israel, and the more untenable their position becomes. This is a social media war fought over the battlegrounds of the notoriously short-term memory deficient Instagram, X, and TikTok. The memory of the Israelis and others butchered by Hamas on the first week of October is already fading rapidly in spite of a public relations blitz to the contrary.

Does all of the above portend the end of restraint and the return of total war, and if so, what does that mean to the inhabitants of the world’s only Jewish-majority state?

What other place is there for the Jews to call home? This lingering question has tried the greatest minds of the Jewish world for the past 2000 years since the diaspora. In the Levant, Theodor Herzl’s grand experiment is under the greatest threat it has seen since the Yom Kipper War 50 years ago to the day. The Israelis must tread very carefully and be keenly aware lest the ground beneath their feet turn into quicksand. Western support for their security is not going be as assured as it was two or even one decade ago. The horrors of the Holocaust and the mass slaughter of European Jewry caused many Jews around the world, even those most skeptical of Zionism, to consider the necessity of the state of Israel as a safe refuge in case of the return of mass antisemitism. Not since the Second World War have Jews both in Israel and in the diaspora faced such a simultaneous assault on their security, and if the global situation continues to get worse, where can they go?

Peter Mitchell is a strategic studies instructor at West Point and contributor to the Modern War Institute. You can follow him on X @peternmitchell.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.

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