We all already understand that modern physics has witnessed revolutionary breakthroughs in the meanings of space and time. These stunning changes remain distant from the related worlds of diplomacy and international relations. Ironically, however, much of the struggle between Israel and the Arabs is plainly about space. Not so obvious, but certainly just as important, is that this struggle is also about time.
Time matters. To survive, Israel’s fight against war and terror must now be conducted with a more self-conscious and determined understanding of chronology.
History also matters. The idea of felt time, of time-as-lived rather than clock time, has its origins in ancient Israel. Rejecting chronology as mere linear progression, the early Hebrews had approached time as a qualitative experience. Here, time was understood as something logically inseparable from its always personally infused content.
The Jewish prophetic vision, which ultimately gave birth to Christianity, was one of a community existing under a transcendent God in time. To be sure, political space in this system was also important, but not because of territoriality. Instead, the significance of space – today we speak politically and strategically of land – stemmed only from the great and sacred events that had presumably taken place within its boundaries.
For Israel, the space-time relationship now has two dimensions. First, any further territorial surrenders by Israel would reduce the amount of time Israel has left to resist war and terrorism. Second, any such surrenders, especially considered together, would provide added time for Israel’s enemies to await a more perfect attack opportunity.
For Israel, the strategic importance of time can be expressed not only by its relationship to space, but also by its undimmed role as a storehouse of memory. By recalling the persisting vulnerabilities of Jewish life in the world, Israel’s current leaders could start to step back from a seemingly endless sequence of surrenders.
Time is power. “Yesterday,” says Samuel Beckett in his analysis of Proust, “is not a milestone that has been passed, but a day stone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably a part of us, heavy and dangerous.”
The subjective metaphysics of time, a reality based not on equally numbered moments, but upon felt representations of time as lived, should influence the foreign policy by which Israel confronts its enemies. Israel must understand the different ways in which particular countries and terror groups live within time. For example, if certain Jihadist terrorist groups now accept a very short time horizon in their search for a fiery end to Israel, the Israeli response to enemy aggressions would have to be correspondingly swift. This could even include appropriate preemptions, or what is known in law as expressions of anticipatory self-defense. If, however, it would seem that this apocalyptic time horizon is much longer, Israel’s policy response could then be more patient and less urgent. Here, for security, Israel could possibly rely more upon the relatively passive dynamics of deterrence and defense.
Of special interest to Israel should be the still-generally hidden time horizon of the Jihadist suicide bomber. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this adversary is afraid of death, so afraid, in fact, that he is willing to “kill” himself (or herself) as a means of overcoming individual mortality. Such an ironic strategy of conquering death offers terrorists a paradoxical way to “unstop time,” that is, to reorient chronology from personal extinction toward life everlasting.
All this has serious implications for foreign policy and peace. Israel could now benefit from decoding a growing mindset that identifies “suicide” with eternal life. Such an intellectual effort should focus upon a primary Islamist idea that time does not have a “stop.” Somehow, therefore, Israel must change the widespread enemy understanding that heroic “martyrdom” is the optimal way to soar above the mortal limits of profane time imposed by clocks.
In Jerusalem, decision-makers must realize that the suicide bomber sees himself or herself as a religious sacrificer, escaping from time without meaning to time that is sacred. By abandoning the time of ordinary mortals – a chronology linked to personal death – the Arab/Islamist suicide bomber seeks to transport himself or herself into the always exclusive world of immortals. Based upon the “suicider’s” distinctive view of time, the temptation to sacrifice despised “infidels” at the altar of Jihad is understandably overwhelming.
What should Israel do with this newly informed grasp of its enemies’ time-based mindset? Israel’s immediate policy response must be to convince prospective suicide bombers that their intended “sacrifice” will never elevate them above the mortal limits of time. But for this to work, the assorted would-be sacrificers would first need to be convinced that: (1) they are not now living in profane time; and (2) that every sacrificial killing of “infidels” is actually an authentic profanation of Islam.
This sort of persuasion will not be easy. To begin, Prime Minister Netanyahu will first need to acknowledge the pertinent enemy perceptions of space and time as ones that are primarily religious and cultural in nature. Only then can Israel’s search for Middle East peace finally begin to make sense.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and international law. He was Chair of Project Daniel, which presented its then-confidential report on Israel’s Strategic Future to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exactly seven years ago this past January. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs correspondent for The Jewish Press.