Without getting lost in the immensely dense intricacies of quantum theory and the theories of relativity, we already know that modern physics has witnessed revolutionary breakthroughs in the rational understanding of space and time. Normally, however, these imaginative breakthroughs – which have produced entirely new “paradigms” or scientific models of the physical universe, still remain distant from analytic considerations of international relations and international law. Nonetheless, it should also be obvious to us that much of the seemingly interminable and titanic struggle between Israel and the Arabs is actually about space – that is, about land and territory. What is not at all obvious, but certainly just as important, is that this struggle in all of its current manifestations is substantially about time.
What does this mean? Why should the Middle East “Peace Process” contain an important chronological dimension? In asking this apparently odd question, I enclose the words peace process in quotation marks because of its historical one-sidedness, a process always seeking an Israeli willingness to exchange “land for nothing.” This enduring condition of asymmetrical expectation extends from the original Oslo Agreements in 1993 to the current “Road Map.” From the spatial perspective, there is, then, in the Middle East “Peace Process,” simply nothing new under the sun.
But chronology is also important here. Israel’s ongoing struggle against Arab/Islamist war and terror should now be conducted with a far more determined and self-conscious understanding of time. This is because, for Israel’s enemies, time means something very different from what it means to those Jews who must defend themselves against persistent Jihadist violence and cruelty. For the Israeli defenders, seeking to implement purposeful policies, real time always has far more to do with an astute awareness of felt time than it does with any standard mechanical measures of clocks.
What, exactly, is felt time? Although usually ignored, time means very different things to the different actors in world politics. Aptly, the idea of felt time, of time-as-lived rather than clock time, has its origins in ancient Israel. Rejecting the idea of chronology as mere linear progression, the early Hebrews had approached time as a distinctly qualitative experience. Dismissed as something that can submit only to abstract or quantitative measure, time was understood in ancient Israel as logically inseparable from its personally infused content.
The Jewish prophetic vision was that of a community existing in time, under a transcendent G-d. Political space in this grand vision was surely important, but, significantly, not because of territoriality. Instead, the significance of space – today we would speak of “land” – naturally derived from the particularly momentous events that had taken place within presumptively sacred borders. These events were identified in part by the progression of a Jewish community structured in time.
For present-day Israel, the space-time relationship has two complex dimensions. First, leaving aside the ironies of possible further capitulations, any still-considered territorial (Judea/Samaria) surrenders by Israel would reduce the amount of time Israel has to resist impending terrorism and aggression. There is nothing at all controversial about this observation. For anyone who reads The Jewish Press, in particular, this plain fact is straightforward, and without any hint of mystery. It has, however, yet to be understood by the deluded many who still desperately chase after an always-illusory “peace.” Second, and similarly obvious, such surrenders, considered cumulatively, have already provided ample time for Israel’s mortal enemies to await their more perfect war-making opportunity. It follows, in an apparent but consequential paradox that time now serves Israel’s enemies both by its diminution, and by its extension.
For Israel, the strategic importance of time can be expressed not only by its unique relationship to space, but also by its role as an indispensable repository of memory. By recalling the historic vulnerabilities of Jewish life in the world, Israel’s current leaders could, finally, begin to step back from a seemingly endless sequence of perilous surrenders. “Yesterday,” says Samuel Beckett in his analysis of Proust, “is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably a part of us, heavy and dangerous.” Aware that tomorrow will be determined largely by “yesterday,” and especially by the memory of “yesterday,” Prime Minister Netanyahu now has a unique opportunity to recognize that time itself is power.
The subjective metaphysics of time, a reality that is based not on equally numbered moments, but upon flowing representations of time as lived, should from now on impact the way in which Israel actually confronts its many Arab/Islamic enemies. This means struggling to understand the manner in which these enemies, both states and terror groups, live within time. If, for example, it can be determined that certain terrorist groups accept a very short time horizon in their ceaseless search for a fiery end to Israel, the Israeli response to Arab/Islamic aggressions and expectations would have to be correspondingly swift (possibly even including certain appropriate preemptions). If, on the other hand, it would seem that this time horizon is substantially longer, Israel’s response could conceivably be more patient and less urgent (thus relying more on the relatively passive dynamics of deterrence and active defense).
Of special interest to Prime Minister Netanyahu should be the still-generally hidden time horizon of the Jihadist suicide bomber. Contrary to the prevailing conventional wisdom, this especially grotesque form of murderer is uniquely afraid of death, so afraid, in fact, that he is willing to “kill himself” as a means of conquering personal mortality. Such a strange manner of conquering death, is, in turn, a paradoxical way to “unstop time,” that is, to replace his or her presumed human obligations to a life of suffering with an eternity of uninterrupted bliss.
Truth, here, thus lies latent in paradox. Israel could now benefit importantly from understanding a seemingly contradictory mindset that identifies “suicide” with everlasting life. Specifically, such an understanding should focus upon a core Islamist terrorist idea that time does not have a “stop,” and that heroic “martyrdom” – that is, the sacrificial murder of defenseless infidels – is inevitably the surest way to soar above the insufferably mortal limits imposed by clocks. Recently, at the Fatah Sixth Congress held in August 2009, this particular message came across loud and clear.
How can such a strategic understanding by Israel be achieved? Perhaps the most obvious way to combat the Arab/Islamist suicide bomber’s peculiarly deadly notion of time is to disabuse him of this notion. This would entail a primary and antecedent realization in Jerusalem that the suicide bomber now sees himself as a religious sacrificer, in full ceremonial action, escaping from time without meaning to a meaningful place of sacred time. Abandoning the profane time of ordinary mortals – a chronology inextricably linked for him or her to personal death – the Arab/Islamist suicide bomber is able to transport himself into the exclusive and divine world of martyred immortals. It follows that the temptation to “sacrifice” despised Jewish infidels at the bloody altar of Jihad is always considerable, even irresistible. Again, this hideous message was strongly reaffirmed at the August 2009 Fatah Sixth Congress.
What should Israel now do with this more informed understanding of its most callously brutish enemy? Clearly, massive internal and external war against the terror infrastructure, while essential for other very good strategic and tactical reasons, can never offer a total solution. Rather, Israel’s immediate task must be to convince prospective suicide bombers, either directly or indirectly, that their intended “sacrifice” will never elevate them above the mortal limits of time. Indeed, the assorted would-be murderers (Fatah, Hamas, it makes absolutely no conceptual difference) will first need to be convinced that: (1) they are not now living in profane time; and (2) that every sacrificial killing of Jews is actually a profanation of Islam.
Exactly how to accomplish this vital objective must quickly become central to Israel’s genuinely existential struggle against war and terrorism in time. In the Middle East “Peace Process,” time should now have its proper space.
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 is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, and was Chair of Project Daniel.