Now and Then: Comparing Two Israeli Wars That Sent Tel Aviv Residents to Bomb Shelters

Nachman Shai, who was the IDF Spokesman during the first Gulf War and is now running for Knesset with the Labor Party, describes Israel's 'passive' and active roles in war, and how it impacts internal politics and international relations.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, the last time rockets were fired on Tel Aviv, we were new immigrants who had landed in Israel just a month and a half earlier. Among the first words we learned in our new language were “nahash tzefa,” Hebrew for “viper,” which was the code name broadcast to signify an incoming attack from Iraq. And among our first consumer experiences was buying rolls of plastic sheets and masking tape to “seal off” the rental apartment we shared with three other immigrants from the possibility of a chemical warfare “surprise” from Saddam Hussein.

We had a quick immersion into the local conflict watching reports of Palestinians dancing as Scud missiles fell, and calling on “dear Saddam” to strike Tel Aviv. As kids, we did our best to decorate the cardboard box that held the gas mask, since we had to carry it with us everywhere. One of our roommates, a bohemian composer who earned his keep playing piano in one of the local bars, was adamant in his refusal to carry his gas mask with him. “It doesn’t make me any prettier,” he joked.

A central figure in our lives back then as new Israelis was Nachman Shai, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman who seemed to have a constant presence on TV, updating and advising citizens on the latest developments. We didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but he had this calm presence that made us feel everything was under control.

This week, I asked Shai, who was elected in 2009 as a Kadima Knesset member and has recently moved over to the Labor Party for the upcoming election, about the difference between the two wars that sent Tel Aviv residents into bomb shelters.

“In 1991, Israel was a passive player,” he said. “It wasn’t Israel’s decision to start the Gulf War and the country was not part of the military or diplomatic moves. Israel was dragged into it because of Saddam Hussein’s eagerness to retaliate against Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1982.

“The current war is our decision. It’s clear that Hamas created the basis for it, but ultimately, it was the decision of the government of Israel. That’s a big difference. Military action initiated by Israel creates a totally different atmosphere. From the perspective of our international standing, in 1991 Israel gained prestige because of its ability to refrain from action. It also had practical benefits – after the war, Israel received generous aid from the United States and Germany, and then came the 1992 Madrid conference, which sought to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world.

“But no country can tolerate constant firing on its territory. Israel does abide by international conventions and play by the rules, and it enjoys support of many people and governments – until it crosses the border to Gaza.”

The 1991 war, says Shai, turned the home front into the battlefront, and so it has remained until today. “The past 20 years with their two wars – the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza – prepared public opinion for the fight for the homeland. It is accepted as a given, without domestic criticism. It’s also important to remember that back then, Israel was concerned about non-conventional weapons. This time, it’s only conventional rocket fire, which thanks to the Iron Dome missile defense system, is relatively non-lethal.”

Did the approaching election in Israel dictate the timing? “It’s clear that the proximity of the election makes an impact on this operation in many ways,” Shai says. “But I tend to believe that it did not impact the decision to launch the operation. Our decision makers, including the prime minister, are surrounded by professionals who would be able to block such a decision if it were motivated by politics. We had a public discourse about the possibility of a preemptive strike against Iran. In the past, operations were blocked because of harsh media criticism and strong public opinion. This process is part of Israeli democracy.”

It is also clear, Shai admits, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are leading this operation – and this will have an impact on the January 22 election. “It’s inevitable,” he says. “In 2008 after Operation Cast Lead, Kadima, the party that was identified with leading the operation, was weakened and Likud gained strength. We don’t know how it will end this time and what kind of mechanism will be put in place to prevent future rocket fire against Israel. But for many of us, including those who live in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it will be a factor in determining how we cast our votes.”

This week, my friend who lives in Tel Aviv, a relatively fresh immigrant, reported how she crawled under the table at work when the siren went off. “My first,” she said as proudly as if she was speaking of graduating with honors.

Daniel Bar-On
Michal Fattal