April 5, 2001
Preparing for War
A time for peace and a time for war. Most talk, for years, has been about peace, but there's war talk in Israel now. At least one independent intelligence agency is predicting a regional war this spring, and nobody is offering credible deniability. The Palestinians have been smuggling weapons into the country -- mortars, anti-tank weapons, heavy machine guns, who knows what else. The stuff comes into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt or sneaked past Israeli naval patrols along the coast. It's not Jordan they're gunning for, at least not to start.
A regional war, it seems clear, is Arafat's best hope to precipitate international intervention (as in the Balkans) or even, if he's lucky, to cut Israel down to size. But will the Arabs really fight for Arafat? Saddam might be eager to send arms, armored battalions, and anthrax. But even Egypt and Syria, who have no love for Arafat and a lot to lose, could be forced, by the hatred they have stirred up against Israel, to join the fray. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv has made plans to turn underground parking lots into shelters against nonconventional weapons -- probably wise foresight but not a great show of confidence. Preparing for the same eventualities, friends of mine in Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, have redecorated their "safe room" as a bedroom and moved their children into it, just in case. They are surely not the only ones.
One hopes, of course, to avoid a larger war, yet if there is going to be one, maybe it's better sooner than later, before our "peace partners" get more prepared. Meanwhile, continual acts and threats of terrorism are making people angry, bitter and helpless. Maybe our new prime minister will know what to do -- Ariel Sharon, like Nixon when he was running for U.S. president during the Vietnam War, claimed to have a plan whose details he couldn't reveal. Although Israel has struck back recently, the country feels no less on edge, and we have yet to see signs that there's an actual plan at work.
Israel's security services acknowledge that there is no way to seal the border hermetically -- and that's an understatement. Where I live, the Green Line is marked by the huge Yattir Forest. Anybody can walk (and maybe drive) through the forest most of the way to Beer Sheva. There's virtually nothing to stop anyone, here or, except for checkpoints on major roads, along most of the country's length. Maybe a fence could keep out the neighbors. But aside from the huge expense, a fence automatically creates a border, and Israel isn't ready, depending on where the fence goes, to give anything to the Palestinians or outrage the rest of the world.
Nonetheless, Ehud Barak announced toward the end of his tenure that a fence was being built, more or less along the Green Line, starting in Maale Gilboa in the north. Soon after, at a bar mitzvah, I met two people from the Gilboa area. Neither of them had seen any signs of fence-building (or even heard of the plan).
"That's just how things are done in Israel," one of them laughed. He meant that's how things aren't done, I guess: absolute decisions are made and then not implemented. Maybe it's not only the Arabs who mistake words for deeds.
Since the current mini-war began, the number of reservists seeking exemptions has doubled, another sign of how disquieted the country is. But it's no wonder. All solutions to Israel's agony seem either wishful thinking or, at best, very temporary, and in the meantime, men who come to the aid of their country could get killed for no clear national advantage.
Imagine the state of mind that develops from living inside a problem with no solution. The mind rebels against so painful a concept. And yet the Palestinians cannot accept what Israel can give, and Israel cannot give what the Palestinians want. There will be an outcome, but that's not the same as a solution. Diplomacy didn't work; now we'll try war and see where that will get us. But it may be that neither diplomacy nor war will get us out of this mess in any final way. After all, it's been going on for three millennia -- read the Book of Judges. The best peace that the best of the judges managed was 80 years; most of them achieved only temporary relief or a moment of national honor. No wonder the Jews invented the idea of the messiah.
But the messiah hasn't come, once again, and we're stuck with real life. It's too bad the Palestinians don't seem to know that.