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Israel's Fifth War — For Its Blood, And Soul

There are very real risks that this conflict may expand and re-shape the entire region. Israel appears to have the means to win on the battlefield, but risks losing along the way the very principles of justice on which it was founded.

Photo of two Israeli soldiers pictures near Sderot, Israel

IDF soldiers in Sderot, Israel, on Oct. 19

Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — After the War of Independence in 1948, the Suez War in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel is now facing its fifth war.

This conflict has evolved beyond conventional battles between regular armies of opposing nations. The situation since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks cannot be seen as just a continuation of previous skirmishes in Gaza.

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In the words of Israel's President, Isaac Herzog, "Never since the Holocaust have so many Jews been killed in a single day." The risks associated with this conflict are real and far-reaching: They extend from the potential escalation on the northern front with Hezbollah to the threat of a third intifada in the West Bank. There is also the unlikely but possible scenario of a direct confrontation with Iran.

To properly understand the situation unfolding in the Middle East, we need to return to the heart of the problem. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at its core, is the result of two opposing historical timelines and collective memories colliding with one another.

Conflict of memories

For Israelis, the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948 was the fulfillment of a long-held dream, driven by the rise of European nationalism in the late 19th century and further reinforced by the horrors of the Holocaust.

On the other hand, for the Arab world, especially Palestinians, the birth of Israel — which occurred just as decolonization movements were gaining momentum worldwide — is seen as an injustice and an anachronism. After all, why should Arabs pay for the crimes committed by Europe against its Jewish population?

In the eyes of Israelis and the Jewish community, the recent events represent a new and particularly horrendous pogrom, made even more tragic because it happened within a state established to protect Jews. For Palestinians and a significant portion of the Arab and Global South populations, the Gaza bombings underscore the perception that Western nations value Israeli lives more than Arab lives.

Amid the risk of confusion and blending of perspectives, it's essential to maintain moral clarity. There are varying degrees of wrong. The "sin of occupation" is not equivalent to the absolute evil represented by Hamas, after its transformation into a group similar to ISIS. Hamas's and ISIS's ultimate goal is the complete eradication of the State of Israel: the issue of occupation is not the sole cause or pretext.

Hamas intends to destroy any possibility of reconciliation for generations to come.

However, achieving moral clarity also means acknowledging the threefold responsibility of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's fifth war. He failed to anticipate the threat posed by Hamas, downplayed the Palestinian problem, and intentionally sowed division among his citizens by proposing reforms to the Supreme Court.

Israel now faces a tragically straightforward dilemma: how to regain strategic credibility without alienating public sympathy. In other words, how to respond to the current trauma, which is amplified by historical memories, without disregarding the lessons of the past.

Just as the United States was weakened by its excessive response to the 9/11 attacks and its ill-fated military ventures in the Middle East, Israel risks losing itself in its legitimate quest to eliminate Hamas.

By resorting to outright brutality, Hamas intends to destroy any possibility of reconciliation for generations to come, not only between Israelis and Palestinians but also between Israel and the broader Arab world. The events of Oct. 7, 2023, represent Hamas' response, backed by Iran, to the Abraham Accords (normalization agreements signed by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) and Saudi Arabia's expressed desire to formally normalize relations with Israel.

Photo of destruction seen in Gaza on Oct. 9

Destroyed buildings and homes in Gaza on Oct. 9

Naaman Omar/APA Images/ZUMA

America is back in the Middle East

Israel must avoid falling into a dangerous trap, and should remember the wisdom of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and U.S. President John F. Kennedy. During negotiations over the Oslo Accords, Rabin said: "We must pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians as if the terrorists did not exist and fight the terrorists as if there were no peace negotiations."

Similarly, Kennedy cautioned that "those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent revolutions inevitable."

In the ongoing struggle against Hamas, Israel must prioritize the imperative of not letting the thirst for vengeance overshadow other important considerations. The United States is once again a significant ally for Israel in this endeavor. Since Oct. 7, America has returned to the Middle East, aiming to shift away from the perceived softness of the Obama era and the illusions of the Trump administration.

As a result of its attack, Hamas has unintentionally helped to reconcile the differences among Israelis, and to foster closer ties between Washington and Jerusalem.

A "normal" life for some should equate to a "normal" life for others.

While a minority calling for jihad should not make us forget the Palestinian cause, it's essential to acknowledge that the Palestinian people have been let down by their historical leaders, discredited by corruption and incompetence, and deliberately used as pawns by Hamas. They deserve a better fate.

Israel's security hinges not only on the resilience and unity of its own people, but also on finding a solution to the Palestinian issue. It's a matter of justice and, ultimately, a question of survival. A "normal" life for some should equate to a "normal" life for others.

During the process leading to the Oslo Accords, secret negotiations on the status of Jerusalem took place in Paris at the headquarters of the French Institute of International Relations. I had the privilege of attending and even moderating some of these discussions. Despite fierce disagreements during the day, Israelis and Palestinians displayed a warm familiarity when parting in the evening, behaving almost like cousins. Dream not. Realistically, it may be a very long time before such an atmosphere can be recreated. Over time, the positions of the two sides have grown further and further apart.

Is it still possible that the culture of life can vanquish the culture of death? Israel will emerge victorious from this new war, but in what state — physically and morally — will it find itself?

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