Concepts of Time in Israel’s Defense Policy

“Clocks slay time.”-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Some facts speak for themselves. For Israel, no arena of national decision-making is conceivably more important than defense and security. Nonetheless, this primary arena is still dominated more by technical weapon-system considerations than by any meaningful regard for advanced conceptual thought. A particularly worrisome example of this self-defeating domination concerns policy-relevant concepts of time.

               Why? It’s not a difficult question. Despite Israel’s continuous success on the “hardware” side of national defense – success that is both enviable and irrefutable –  it remains difficult to discover any pertinent philosophical underpinnings. With notably few exceptions, the published product of the beleaguered country’s defense-centered think tanks displays little or no deep-seated erudition. This product, though commendably “professional,” could have been developed by engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists who never consulted a scintilla of philosophy, literature, art or poetry.[1]

               In this unfortunate regard, Israel has made itself into an America microcosm. Now, already, the tangible world of Israel’s defense community is one that exemplifies what Jose Ortega y’Gasset called “the barbarism of specialization.”[2] Significantly, by the Spanish philosopher’s own design, it was a purposeful nomenclature of lamentation.

               There is much more to understand. To explore defense/security-related ideas, Israeli analysts could begin with suitably reinvigorated concepts of time. But any such beginning would first require acknowledgements in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that “defense time” should always be experienced palpably, differentially, as subjective duration. In essence, for Israel’s national security planners, “real time” ought never to be interpreted solely in terms of clock measurement.[3] Because “clocks slay time,” any such interpretation would prove simplifying and injurious.

               Further clarifications are in order. Seemingly reasonable objections to what is being proposed here would be raised against any “fanciful” (non-objective) metaphysics of time.  Inter alia, it would likely be argued here that this is not the right moment for Israeli planners to immerse themselves in any abstract complexities of chronology. After all, they would inquire, aren’t Israel’s core security problems unmistakably tactical or “practical?”

               There is one plainly proper response to such a query. As every serious scientist understands, nothing is more practical than good theory. It follows that carefully fashioned theories of time could not only assist pragmatic foreign policy decision-making in Israel; they could also prove indispensable.

               For military decisional calculations, Israeli securityanalyses should always contain certain core elements of chronology. Accordingly, Israel’s many-sided struggle against war and terror will need to be conducted with more intellectually determined and conspicuously nuanced conceptualizations of time. Though seemingly “impractical,” such “felt time” or “inner time” conceptualizations could reveal more about Israel’s existential security challenges than would any “objectively” numbered intervals on clocks.

               There is an evident historical irony to this observation. The notion of “felt time” or time-as-lived has its actual or doctrinal origins in ancient Israel. By rejecting time as simple linear progression, the early Hebrews already approached chronology as a qualitative experience. Once dismissed as something that can submit only to quantitative measures, time began to be understood by 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. Yet, no such resurrection could possibly emerge ex nihilo, out of nothing. First, there would have to take place a far-reaching recommitment to intellect, learning and “mind.”[4]

                In world security matters, of course, time is not exclusively or necessarily about Israel. For American national security defense planners currently focused on Vladimir Putin and Russian crimes against humanity,[5] the ancient Hebrew view of time could prove clazrifyingly useful. Vladimir Putin’s cumulative decisions on aggressive war[6] against Ukraine could stem more-or-less directly from his own personal metaphysics of time.[7]

               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 certain unique events that had presumably taken place within now-sanctified boundaries.

               For present-day Israel, the space-time relationship reveals at least two major defense/security policy implications. First, 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,”[8] 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 in terms of its unique relationship to space, but as a storehouse of memory. By expressly recalling the historic vulnerabilities of Jewish life, Israel’s current leaders could begin to step back sensibly from a seemingly endless pattern of lethal equivocations. Ultimately, such policy movements could enhance “timely” prospects for a durable peace.

                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 principal enemies. This means, among other things, struggling to understand the manner in which enemy states and terror groups chooseto 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 particular terrorist groups now accept a shorter time horizon in their continuous 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 calculably 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[9] than on any active strategies of war fighting.[10]

               Of special interest to Israel’s prime minister and general staff should be the hidden time horizons of a Jihadist suicide bomber. Although a counter-intuitive sort of understanding, this martyrdom-focused adversary is overwhelminglyafraid of death. In all likelihood, he or she is so utterly afraid of “not being” that the correlative terrorist plan for “suicide” is actually intended to avoid death. In terms of our present investigation of time and Israeli national security decision-making, “martyrdom” is generally accepted by hard-core Muslim believers as the most honorable and 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 from “profane time” to “sacred time.”

                There is more. 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. Among Israelis, prima facie, this murderous temptation by familiar enemies is well recognized.

               What should Israel do with such an informed understanding of its adversaries’ concept of time? In principle, at least, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv’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 the would-be sacrificers would need to convince themselves that they are not now living in “profane time,” and that killing of “infidels” or “apostates” could not offer the Jihadist power over death.[11]Such power, it goes without saying, is the greatest conceivable form of power.

               By definition, no other form of power could possibly seem more attractive.

               No such complex task of self-persuasion could ever prove easy.

               Soon, Israeli policy-makers will need to recognize certain dense problems of chronology as religious and cultural quandaries. They will also need to acknowledge to themselves that any search for promising peace plans must be informed by intellectual understanding and genuine Reason,[12] not just the transient considerations of domestic politics or global geopolitics.

               “As earthlings,” asserts Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut, “all have had to believe whatever clocks said.” As national security decision makers, Israeli strategic thinkers now have it in their power to look beyond the simplifying hands of clocks and affirm more authentically clarifying meanings of time. For them, exercising such latent power could represent a defense/security policy decision in the optimal direction. First, however, they would need to be reminded that serious national security planning is always more than just a technical, tactical or weapon-system matter.

               Going forward, Israeli planners should take calculated steps to ensure that policy-related concepts of time include vital elements of subjective duration. Otherwise, taken in isolation, clocks could only undermine more substantial understandings of chronology. In essence, clocks do represent a universally agreed upon paradigm of what should inform national security decision-making. What they do not represent, however, are usable standards for crisis decision-making processes. In circumstances where their calculable measurements are not finely interpreted, clocks would only “slay time.”

[1] “Yesterday,” warns 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 anddangerous.”  By this warning, the prescient playwright would likely have understood Israel’s chronology-based risks and obligations. Sometimes, therefore, as we may learn from the creator of Waiting for Godot, military imperatives are better understood by the poet than the strategist.

[2] See by the twentieth century Spanish existentialist philosopher, The Revolt of the Masses, Chapter 12 (1930). See also, by Professor Louis René Beres, at Modern Diplomacy:

[3] In contrast to “inner time” or “felt time,” clock time is unable to recognize that human beings react not to variously disconnected points in their mental constructions, but to instantaneous sections of an indefinite temporality. From the ancient era of Hebrew prophets and the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, humans have acted upon time as universal flow, as a state of continuing transformation.

[4] In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought. It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of Ethics, Spinoza considers the human mind or “intellectual attributes,” and drawing from René Descartes underscores a comprehensive endorsement of human learning. Later, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, in The New Spirit and the Poets (1917)clarifies further: “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”

[5] See, by this author, at JURIST  Louis René Beres:

[6] For the specific crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (xxix), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631 (1975), reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[7] In a worst case scenario, such decisions could lead to nuclear war with the United States. For authoritative accounts by this author of nuclear war effects, many of them synergistic, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[8] On synergies, see, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School: See also, by Professor Beres, at Modern War Institute, West Point:

[9] See Professor Louis René Beres and General (USAF/ret.) John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran”? The Atlantic, 2012; Professor Beres and General Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog, 2012); Louis René Beres and Admiral (USN/ret.) Leon “Bud” Edney, “Facing a Nuclear Iran, Israel Must Re-Think its Nuclear Ambiguity,” US News & World Report, 2013; and Louis René Beres and Admiral Edney, “Reconsidering Israel’s Nuclear Posture,” The Jerusalem Post, 2013. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, US Strategic Air Command (CINSAC). Admiral Edney was NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).

[10] Nuclear war fighting should never represent an acceptable strategic option for Israel. Always, Jerusalem’s nuclear weapons and doctrine should be oriented toward deterrence, not actual combat engagements. This conclusion was central to the Final Report of Project Daniel: Israel’s Strategic Future, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, ACPR, Israel, May 2004, 64 pp. See also: Louis René Beres, “Facing Iran’s Ongoing Nuclearization: A Retrospective on Project Daniel,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vo. 22, Issue 3, June 2009, pp. 491-514; and Louis René Beres, “Israel’s Uncertain Strategic Future,” Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College, Vol. XXXVII, No.1., Spring 2007, pp, 37-54. Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon).

[11] See, by this author, Louis René Beres:

[12] The critical importance of Reason to legal judgment was prefigured in ancient Israel, which accommodated the core concept within its special system of revealed law. Jewish theory of law, insofar as it displays the evident markings of a foundational Higher Law, offers a transcending order revealed by the divine word as interpreted by human reason.  In the words of Ecclesiastes 32.23, 37.16, 13-14:  “Let reason go before every enterprise and counsel before any action…And let the counsel of thine own heart stand…For a man’s mind is sometimes wont to tell him more than seven watchmen that sit above in a high tower….”

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.