Time in Israel’s National Security

By Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University

June 11, 2022

Despite Israel’s conspicuous successes on the technological side of national security, there is little evidence of any meaningful philosophical underpinnings. For the most part, the small country’s defense policies and infrastructures, though impressively complex, could have been developed by “professionals” who had never acquainted themselves with any wider benefits of learning. In this regard, Israel has been transforming itself into an American microcosm.

The many-sided world of Israel’s defense community (much like the technology-dominated world of its American model) expresses what Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset famously called (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930) “the barbarism of specialization.” To more deeply explore defense-related ideas and strategies, Israeli analysts could begin with variously reinvigorated concepts of time. But it would first need to be acknowledged that “defense time” ought to be experienced as “inner time,” as subjective duration. Indeed, for any country’s national security planners, “real time” should never be interpreted narrowly as mere “clock time.”

Further clarifications are in order. As every serious scientist and philosopher of science already understands, nothing can be more practical than good theory. Accordingly, more subjectively-fashioned theories of time could not only assist pragmatic foreign policy decision-making in Israel, they could also prove pertinent to a wider regional peace.

In essence, Middle East security analyses should always contain conscious elements of chronology. Israel’s complicated struggle against war and terror will need to be conducted with more intellectually determined and nuanced conceptualizations of time. Though seemingly “impractical,” such “felt time” conceptualizations could reveal more about Israel’s existential security challenges than would any numbered intervals on clocks.

There is evident historical irony to this unusual observation. To wit, the notion of “felt time” or time-as-lived has its doctrinal origins in ancient Israel. By rejecting time as simple linear progression, the early Hebrews had already approached chronology as a qualitative experience. Once dismissed as something that can submit only to quantitative measures, time began to be understood by certain early Jewish thinkers as a specific subjective quality, one inherently inseparable from personally infused content.

On its face, such classical Hebrew logic or logos could accept no other point of view. For Israel’s present-day national security defense planning, it’s a perspective worthy of prompt policy-making resurrection. No such “resurrection” could emerge ex nihilo, out of nothing. First, there would have to take place a palpably far-reaching recommitment to intellect, learning and “mind.”

In wider world security matters, time factors are not exclusively or necessarily about Israel. For American national security defense planners currently focused on Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the ancient Hebrew view of time could prove clarifyingly useful. Vladimir Putin’s cumulative decisions on war against Ukraine could stem more-or-less directly from his own determinable metaphysics of time.

From its beginnings, the Jewish prophetic vision was one of a community living in time and under a transcendent God. Political space in this immutable vision was vitally important, but not because of any territoriality issues per se. Instead, the relevance of space – today, Israelis and Palestinians are apt to speak of “land” – stemmed from particular unique events that had presumably taken place within now-sacred boundaries.

For present-day Israel, the space-time relationship reveals at least two major defense policy implications. First, and obvious, any considered territorial surrenders by Israel (Judea/Samaria or “West Bank”) would reduce the amount of time Israel has left to resist war and terrorism. Second, and similarly unassailable, some past surrenders, especially when considered “synergistically,” had provided extra time for Israel’s enemies to await optimal attack opportunities.

For Israel, still faced with recurrent war and terror on several fronts, the strategic importance of time can be expressed not only by its unique relationship to space, but also as a perpetual storehouse of memory. By expressly recalling the historic vulnerabilities of Jewish life, Israel’s current leaders could step back sensibly from a seemingly endless pattern of lethal equivocations. Ultimately, such policy movements could enhance certain “timely” prospects for a durable peace, one benefiting all peoples in the region.

Eventually, a subjective metaphysics of time, a reality based not on equally numbered chronological moments, but on deeply-felt representations of time as lived, could impact the ways in which Israel chooses to confront its enemies. This means, among other things, struggling to understand the manner in which enemy states and terror groups choose to live within time. For the moment, any such struggle would have to be undertaken without any credible expectations of analytic precision or accuracy.

If it could be determined that identifiable terrorist groups now accept a shorter time horizon in their persistent search for “victory” over Israel, any Israeli response to enemy aggressions would have to be swift. If it would seem that this presumed time horizon was actually longer, Israel’s response could still be more or less incremental. For Israel, this would mean relying more on the relatively passive dynamics of military deterrence and military defense than on any active strategies of war fighting.

Of special interest to Israel’s government should be the hidden time horizons of a Jihadist suicide bomber. Although a counterintuitive sort of understanding, this martyrdom-focused adversary is overwhelmingly afraid of death. In all likelihood, he or she is so utterly afraid of “not being” that the correlative terrorist plan for “suicide” is intended to avoid personal death. In terms of this present investigation of time and Israeli national security decision-making, “martyrdom” is generally accepted by certain Muslim believers as the most recognizably heroic way to soar above the mortal limits imposed by clocks.

A key question dawns. As a strategy or tactic for Israel, how can such a perplexing acceptance be meaningfully countered? One promising way would require prior realization that an aspiring suicide bomber see himself or herself as a religious sacrificer. This would signify an adversary’s escape from time without meaning, a move away from “profane time” to “sacred time.”

Abandoning the self-defiling time conceptualizations of ordinary mortals, the martyrdom-seeking suicide bomber seeks to to transport himself or herself into a rarefied world of “immortals.” For him or her, and from “time to time,” the temptation to “sacrifice” despised “infidels” upon the altar of Jihad can become all-consuming. For anyone who reads the news, this conclusion is self-evident.

What should Israel do with such an informed understanding of its adversaries’ concept of time? In principle, at least, Jerusalem’s immediate policy response should be to convince prospective suicide bombers that their intended “sacrifice” could never elevate them above the mortal limits of time. But first, assorted would-be sacrificers would need to convince themselves that they are not now living in “profane time,” and that the killing of “infidels” or “apostates” could not offer them power over death.

“Nothing is real that is not eternal,” reminds twentieth-century Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in Tragic Sense of Life (1921).

Soon, Israeli policy-makers will need to recognize certain problems of chronology as dense religious and cultural quandaries. They will also need to acknowledge that any genuine search for promising peace plans must always be informed by more serious intellectual understanding, erudition and “mind.” Such a search should always occupy a place of paramount policy significance in Jerusalem.

In the final analysis, what doesn’t support broader regional cooperation in the Middle East could never enhance any state’s national security.

Featured photo by Shai Pal from Unsplash


LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971), a previous contributor to Horasis, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. The author of many major books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and international law, he first published on chronological aspects of national decision-making almost fifty years ago. (See Louis René Beres, “Time, Consciousness and Decision-Making in Theories of International Relations,” The Journal of Value Inquiry; Fall 1974.) Professor Beres’ twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd, ed. 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy