Playing With Fire: A Dispatch From The Front -- Of The Television

The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

The Gaza war, if that's the word for it, has reduced Israelis living more than 40 kilometers from the Gaza border to spectators of a kind of reality TV show: familiar contestants but no clear plot; the definition-of-victory provided by IDF generals, or pundits who were IDF generals, speaking earnestly about "degrading" the enemy's "capabilities" and "motivation"; the reality provided by videos of corpses swaddled for burial (ours), or carried by chanting crowds (theirs), and periodic interruptions announcing "code red," that is, "run for cover," in Beer Sheva or Ashkelon. More and more, this seems a competition for blood--not too much blood for CNN, God forbid--but just enough to tip some vague, fugitive strategic balance.

Each side, after all, has no espoused goal other than to retaliate against the other side yet again, only this time more shockingly, hence, instructively. Hamas's Haniya says that killing al-Jabari would "open the gates of hell" for Israel. Shas's Eli Yishai says that Gaza should be bombed back to the Middle Ages (presumably, an era Shas knows well). Israeli government leaders, meanwhile, tell us they aim to "reestablish deterrence" and go after "terrorist infrastructure." The former goal never quite passes the test of common sense, a point we'll return to. But the latter goal translates, plausibly, and with almost universal approval, into the Israeli air force pulverizing Hamas commanders and missile batteries--especially the longer range Grad and M75 types, capable of reaching heavily populated cities--as well as the tunnels through which weapons parts are spirited (and from which Hamas has been more generally profiting).

The key here, as it always is at first with air power: find "quality targets" while minimizing civilian casualties. And in the opening hours of the operation IAF commanders operated as if Judge Goldstone were looking over their shoulders, releasing videos of pinpoint strikes against missile installations and cruising Jeeps, with no damage caused to nearby homes or mosques. Yesterday, however, there were the predictable "errors," along with the usual recriminations about Hamas using Gazans as "human shields," and, horribly, the corpses of small children being dragged from rubble.

To be clear, Hamas is using human shields. Even the most ardent peace advocate does not doubt that--whatever the grievances of the Naqba and occupation--Hamas has been engaging in terrorism of the most brazen sort, which must be stopped. This brazenness is earning Israel something unusual: the near universal, if provisional, sympathy of Western nations. There can be no excuse, none, for firing hundreds of rockets into Israeli cities, aiming to kill Israelis at random, betraying a totalitarian political imagination in which the people here become mere categories ("Zionists," "occupiers"), and categories have become candidates for elimination.

In this context, the only unambiguously positive feeling about this war comes from Israel's "Iron Dome" technology, which seems to be knocking missiles out of the air almost as routinely as Larry Bird hitting free throws. (A sad irony: one of the three people killed in Kiryat Malachi reportedly did not take shelter because he wanted to record an Iron Dome hit with his smart phone--only the battery did not deploy this time.)

But back to "reestablishing deterrence," which seems an unintelligible scatter of facts and claims,  amounting, increasingly, to skepticism if not despair. Aerial bombardment, cruelly consoling as this was for Israelis at the start, has limits that quickly became all too obvious. Hamas thrives on such attacks: the more Palestinians rage, not only in Gaza, but across the West Bank and the Galilee, the more they turn to the custodians of apocalyptic steadfastness. (The person after whom the M75 missile is named, Ibrahim Al-Makadma, was a Hamas strategist, killed in 2003, who famously prophesied that every time Hamas attacked, Israel would retaliate against the Palestine Authority, and civilians in general, which would ultimately bring Hamas to power.)

So the question on every mind, and every headline, is whether Israel should forget deterrence and invade Gaza with ground forces--as Prime Minister Netanyahu is threatening, and for which the IDF is manifestly preparing. The chances for it, Israeli leaders say, are 50-50. But while 90 percent of Israelis support the operation, 70 percent oppose invasion, and not just because they fear the losses. In a way, they are intuitively more afraid of the losses they will inflict--and for good reason.

Sure, Israel has the moral authority to "defend its citizens," as President Obama automatically (and quite properly) put it. The thing is, no Israeli offensive on the ground can reimpose occupation without using what even Americans will see as disproportionate force. The thing Goldstone could never quite grasp was that no Israeli officer will fail to use tank shells against a sniper in an apartment window if this means minimizing the risk to his troops--and damn the children in the adjacent apartment.

This was the real lesson of Cast Lead in 2009, and the second Lebanon war in 2006, too. It has sunk in. The most disquieting feeling Israelis have comes from listening to generals and Likud cheerleaders repeating threats that have come to seem not wrong, exactly, but unimaginative, even tedious. If the game is chess, can you respond like checkers? What happens after you move?

So imagine an invasion, which cannot but evolve into a bloodbath like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Mubarak is gone. Morsi will not tolerate the slaughter of civilians projected all over YouTube and from there to Al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, the Jordanian throne could fall. Assad could try to save his skin by entering the war; Syria might prod Hezbollah to launch missiles of its own. An Intifadah could then take hold in the West Bank. Israeli Arab citizens would begin mass demonstrations. What chance will there be for turning back from a fight to the finish? What general has a PowerPoint slide with an answer?

Deep down, you see, Israelis know that their leaders are playing with fire. It is hard to believe that Obama has not been reinforcing the point, as Morsi (desperate for financial help from the US and the IMF) has been pressuring Hamas in Cairo. Yes, there are large numbers of people on both sides who would welcome bringing things to a head: a Bosnian-style chaos that would, presumably, replay the war of 1948 and "settle things once and for all."

But most Israelis, I think, are slowly coming to see that leaders stepping back from the brink, as after 1973, will itself be what ushers in a new strategic balance. People are saying things on television that would have been "outside the consensus" only last week. For it is also clear what the terms of a cease-fire will look like: formal guarantees by Egypt, the US, and possibly Turkey, the opening of the Rafa border crossing to Egypt, in effect, the recognition of Hamas as a political actor, if not a government--perhaps international monitors on the ground--something that looks like Kissinger's "disengagement of forces" agreement with Syria in 1974. In the wake of such a cease-fire, President Abbas would make one last push at the UN to gain recognition for a process leading to a Palestinian state, and who other than Israel and the US would oppose him?

And what beyond this? A former American diplomat reminded me at lunch on Saturday that there is still an American law on the books requiring the US government to defund any UN agency the PLO is admitted to. But let's dream we can step back from the brink one more step and, with Hamas and Israel in a formal cease-fire, the US government finally gives Abbas a victory, too. Let's dream, that is, that a missile does not finally fall on an Israeli kindergarten, or that a bomb does not kill Haniya. That, suddenly, we have nowhere to go but down into the fog of war.