In August of 1973 I arrived in Israel as a guest of the Foreign Ministry. For reasons I no longer recall, the ministry had decided that trying to effect my conversion to its view of Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians was a worthy investment. This was six years after Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War, hence of its conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza District; it was six weeks before the Yom Kippur War, which Israel won only after suffering significant losses — 2,656 dead, 7,250 wounded.
I remember now only the beginning and the end of a week-long blur of meetings. This was the first (and last) time I was met on the airport tarmac by a limousine, which is very cool. And, saving the best for last, my visit concluded with an 80-minute meeting with the then chief of military intelligence, General Eli Zeira. I was ushered into Zeira’s immense office and noticed first the most detailed map of the region I’d ever seen, one that seemed to me nearly on a 1-to-1 scale.
I was flattered by the time Zeira devoted to our meeting, though I recall only what he said at its end: “Look, Fein, you needn’t be so impatient. They [meaning principally Egypt and Syria] are not going to try anything for at least 10 years. And if for some reason they do, then you have my personal guarantee: three days, and we will be in both Cairo and Damascus.”
Six weeks later, the war. Obviously, Zeira knew very many things that I did not know, yet he quickly and quite unceremoniously found himself the former chief of military intelligence. So it goes: Lyndon Johnson plainly knew much more than I about what was happening in Vietnam, but that did not mean he was right in his assessment of what America should do there. And Israel’s current minister of defense, Ehud Barak, also knows much, much more than I. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong about Gaza; it only means he may be.
Which is — no great surprise — by way of introducing a reflection on the current war.
The standard explanation of Israel’s assault on Gaza is that Israel “has no choice.” That is a slogan with a long history in Israel, going back to the 1930s. If you believe you have no choice when you make war, then you are off the moral hook. But the idea of ein breira — there is no alternative — is easily transformed into a refuge for the intellectually lazy, a bankrupt alibi for all manner of mischief, a shoddy renunciation of autonomy and responsibility. (Uri Zvi Greenberg, a hugely controversial star of Israel’s far right-wing and one of the greatest Hebrew poets of the 20th century, once wrote approvingly that for the Jews, “There is no alternative, for in fact we have no desire whatsoever for an alternative.”) What, we are required to ask, are Israel’s aims in its assault against Gaza? And what are the risks attendant thereto?
It is exceedingly difficult to discern Israel’s war aims. Depending on which Israeli leader is speaking, they range from reducing rocket fire into Israel via a lasting truce, to an end to both rocket fire and the smuggling of weapons and explosives, all the way to Hamas’s definitive ouster from power. All the proposed goals share the urgent conviction that Israel’s deterrent capability, so badly damaged in Lebanon two years ago, must be unambiguously re-established.
After more than a week of aerial and naval bombardment and days of ground assault, it appears that Israel has yet to achieve even its minimal goals. Were it to halt its operation today, it could not claim to have achieved the kind of victory that arguably might have warranted its onslaught. (To say nothing of the rising toll of innocent dead.) But continuing the offensive is not an appealing alternative. Short of actually re-occupying Gaza, it is doubtful that Israel can achieve the kind of change in the rules of the game that could be described as a victory. Unless, prompted by the virtually inevitable carnage, others impose a cease-fire that minimally includes reopening the crossing points between Israel and Gaza, tight controls of the Gaza-Egypt border (preventing the smuggling of arms and munitions into Gaza) and a cessation of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Then everyone except the dead, the bereaved and the wounded can claim victory, and the terrified can begin to heal.
There’s worse: When this war is over it may take Hamas many months to regroup, but Fatah has already been seriously damaged. Its struggle to be taken seriously by the Palestinian “street” had only lately begun to bear fruit, but now Fatah is again seen as ineffectual, even as a tool of Israeli and American interests. It has been both unable and unwilling to act to protect the citizens of Gaza. One day, it blames Hamas; the next, it excoriates Israel. Still, Israel needs Fatah, needs it badly. Without moderate Fatah — with either Hamas or utter chaos in its stead — there is no one with whom Israel can engage in any serious peace process.
With its right hand, Israel makes war; with its left hand, it builds new housing for Jews in the West Bank. With both hands, then, it weakens Fatah. Israel says it favors a two-state solution, and one must take that seriously, for its leaders know that absent a two-state solution there will one day come to pass a one-state solution, and that state will not be a democratic Jewish state. A two-state solution is an existential necessity for the Jewish state, its one strategic imperative. Its leaders cannot afford to employ tactics in Gaza that render that strategic imperative still more remote. It follows that even if Israel does win the current battle, it risks losing the fateful war.