While Israel’s self-interested politicians have indulged their personal interests and egos for the past year — leaving us without a fully functioning government, and sentencing us to two, going on three, elections as they take potshots at each other — the military rules of the game surrounding us have changed. With Iran as the game-master.
Last week, predawn Tuesday, the IDF settled accounts with the thug it said was the “prime instigator” of terrorism from Gaza this past year, deploying a guided missile to kill Baha Abu al-Ata and his wife in their bedroom as they slept. What followed were two days of missile fire from Gaza that battered southern Israel and prompted the first shut-down in a generation of our vibrant modern Zionist city Tel Aviv.
“The city that never sleeps” was ordered anesthetized for several hours — schools closed, business shuttered, streets deserted — on a sunny Tuesday morning, out of concern that our rightly praised array of rocket and missile defenses might nonetheless not be able to cope with the barrages. And this, remember, after a surgical Israeli strike on a single terrorist, in the pay of the smaller of the two main Gaza terrorist groups, neither of which pose even a tenth of the threat to Israel that Hezbollah does, with its six-figure rocket and missile arsenal in Lebanon.
And then this week, again predawn Tuesday, a week after a silent Israel was blamed for a second airstrike, in Damascus, on a second Islamic Jihad commander, and amid unconfirmed Syrian state TV reports of an attack on targets at Damascus airport, northern Israel was shocked out of its sleep by alarm sirens announcing missile fire from Syria — four projectiles all mercifully intercepted by our Iron Dome defense system.
In the new rules of the game, it would appear, any and every precision-guided step that Israel takes to bolster its security and eliminate those who plot to harm its people is being “answered” by indiscriminate fire at our citizenry that shatters our national routine, and that often requires international mediation to halt.
This is the new normal being imposed by Iran — the Iran that funds, trains and arms Islamic Jihad in Gaza, that has warmed its ties with Hamas, that has turned Hezbollah into the world’s strongest terrorist army, that works relentlessly to deepen its military presence in President Bashar Assad’s blood-filled Syria, and that is ready to foster unrest on our other borders and beyond.
No quick fixes
The Israeli military is mighty, and is more than capable of protecting the nation and taking whatever measures our political masters order.
And the Israeli public is spectacularly resilient, insistently shrugging off alarm after alarm after alarm, escalation after escalation after escalation, and resuming “normal” life. Where other peoples might flee their bombarded country, Israelis are actually swelling the population in the rocket-blighted Gaza envelope communities — moving to live in the shadow of the rockets and mortar shells.
But a growing swath of the population is becoming increasingly traumatized by the endless attacks. Hebrew media last week reported a study suggesting that fully half the residents of the Gaza envelope communities have become profoundly traumatized. In an interview with the Ynet website (Hebrew), one leading psychologist in the area assessed that 70% of residents have managed to develop “the tools” to cope with the untenable reality of life under prolonged rocket fire, “but 30%, and that’s a huge proportion, require ongoing treatment.”
The situation is intolerable, but there are no easy solutions.
Israel unilaterally left southern Lebanon in 2000, because it was losing some 30 soldiers a year to attacks in the so-called Security Zone. The international community applauded, assured Israel it would take steps to prevent terrorist organizations filling the vacuum, and to nobody’s surprise did nothing as Hezbollah took over.
Israel controversially left Gaza in 2005 — dismantled settlements, withdrew the army — in what the right (which wanted to stay) and the left (which urged a negotiated withdrawal with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas) both correctly warned would be perceived as a vindication of terrorism. And a succession of politicians since then have urged a far harsher response to the Gaza rocket fire, but conspicuously chosen not to implement it when in a position to do so. So far, too, the various governments of Benjamin Netanyahu have opted against the reconquest of Gaza or even major ground offensives.
This is not a criticism; if there were quick fixes, doubtless they would have been implemented.
What does require criticism, however, is the degree to which our political leaders have allowed themselves to be distracted from what ought to be an obsessive focus on the strategies for our defense in the face-off against an increasingly emboldened Iran and its web of proxy forces around us.
Since the end of December 2018, we have been ruled by transitional governments, as we have lurched from inconclusive election to inconclusive election, against a backdrop of Iranian-orchestrated attacks and a domestic political blame game.
Avigdor Liberman’s decision to deny Netanyahu a coalition in April is only the most transparent of the dangerous and indefensible political shenanigans.
Had Liberman truly been motivated by the national interest — by the desire to more fairly share the burden of rights and responsibilities among Israelis, rather than fear of his growing political irrelevance — he would not have condemned us to a year of political paralysis by demanding a law on conscription for young ultra-Orthodox males that would actually have no significant effect on conscription levels among young ultra-Orthodox males.
He would, rather, have insisted on a trailblazing array of national service frameworks that would ensure all young Israelis pull their weight, in or out of IDF uniform. This is an eminently viable solution that stares Israel’s politicians in the face but that they insistently ignore because it does not serve their particular political purposes.
At the very top, meanwhile, the prime minister has extracted a series of declarations from the empathetic US administration — on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and now the settlements — that he has used to try to demonstrate his indispensability and superiority over his political rivals. But declarative backing is no substitute for overt engagement, and surely that, rather than statements of support, is what Israel should be focused on in its vital interactions with our most important ally.
Iran’s attacks on key Saudi oil infrastructure went unanswered. The US president is inclined toward a full withdrawal of US troops from Syria. And his repeated declarations that the US has no business being in the Middle East, with its “stupid, endless wars,” is music to the ears of those dangerous regimes, with Iran at the forefront, who seek to exploit every sign of American weakness or fading interest.
Ironically, Monday’s announcement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the dramatic declarative shift on the settlements served to underline the sense that such pronouncements are made in large part for the tactical benefit of a political ally — Netanyahu. US President Donald Trump, after all, is an on-the-record skeptic, to put it mildly, when it comes to the settlement enterprise, as he has made clear twice to the pro-Netanyahu, Adelson-owned Israel Hayom daily: “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace,” he said in 2017. “The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” he repeated a year later.
Most Israelis were delighted to hear that the US recognizes Jerusalem as the historic and current capital of our state. Most Israelis were pleased to learn that the US does not believe we should relinquish the strategic ridge on our northern border to the butcher Assad. Some Israelis are happy to be told that the US no longer considers the settlement enterprise to be illegal — though many, this writer included, worry that our growing entanglement with millions of Palestinians, and the talk of annexation, gravely risk the loss of Israel’s Jewish majority and/or the subversion of its democracy. But all Israelis worry about an isolationist America giving ground to Russia and Iran on our doorstep — worry for Israeli and American interests.
If, as Netanyahu’s aides claim, the prime minister worked for months with the US administration on the settlement designation, might some of that precious time and effort not have been better directed toward strategic planning and actions — in confronting Iran and its proxies — and in making the argument to a plainly unconvinced president about the imperative for ongoing American engagement in the Middle East?
This isn’t Scandinavia
For a year, as Iran moved to tighten its circle around us, our politicians have paralyzed government and sniped at each other for all the world as though we were living in Finland (1st), Denmark (2nd) or some of the other relatively untroubled countries that outscore admirably happy Israel (13th) on the annual UN World Happiness Index.
Israel is not Scandinavia. It is a small, embattled nation in the toxic Middle East. And our leaders’ little rivalries have never looked so unforgivably self-indulgent as they do today, in the new normal where we are routinely shaken from our sleep by the latest aggression of Iran and its proxies.
In Tehran, they issue declarations too. Declarations of intent. As the “supreme leader” assured us all just last week, the Iranian regime isn’t anti-Semitic. It’s just bent on eliminating the world’s only Jewish state.