Israel Wants a War Film, Not War

In its latest Gaza operation, Israel’s message to Hamas is simple: Bring us the serpent’s head - we want to talk to it.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 8, 2014.
Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

When the actor Eli Wallach died last month at the age of 98, he took to the grave – one hopes – a worn-out journalistic cliché that he inspired, the one that goes hardly a week without someone repeating it: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

So said Tuco, the villain played by Wallach (may Clint Eastwood avenge his blood) in the western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” His suggestion to shoot rather than talk, when necessary, was raised to a level of strategic brilliance somewhere between Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. For a generation, it has served impatient critics of the policy of restraint as a truth that needs no proof.

But Wallach, as Tuco, had another piece of advice that was not recycled as often: “But if you miss, you had better miss very well.” The army’s operation in the Gaza Strip, which began on Monday night, obeys Tuco’s second rule while upgrading the first, since this time the shooting is mainly a kind of talking – weapons of mass listening rather than mass destruction.

If they are searching for “the serpent’s head,” which was so abhorred in the previous rounds, it is to reach an agreement with it rather than kill it.

Israel never wanted this violent round. It is too realistic to delude itself that it can improve its situation by forceful means. The only purpose is to restore the state of low-intensity fire that existed previously and is relatively tolerable (although not tolerable to those in the south who are experiencing fear and uncertainty on top of real danger).

The government must show that it is doing something, but not too much – the public, which is fickle and thirsty for action, will turn against it if the price in casualties is high. The intermediate solution is a small operation, a flyby as opposed to a bombardment.

Since everyone already knows the way Israel operates – from reading the Winograd Commission’s report on the Second Lebanon War to analyzing the differences between Operations Cast Lead (2008-09) and Pillar of Defense (2012) – the army must take a series of measures, without which the other side won’t believe that it means business.

There is no operation without preparations for a ground incursion, and there are no such preparations without “gathering the forces” and “organizing armored brigade-wide teams.” And there is no reinforcement of troops without a call-up of the reserves to the operation’s sector or replacing regular army units brought in from other sectors.

To make sure we believe that the operation exists, it is given a name. In this case, Operation Protective Edge, the nephew of Operation Lapid Eitan (Lebanon, February 2000) and Operation Cast Lead. A Hebrew title (“Tzuk Eitan” – literally, “Cliff Edge”) that is firm, strong, rocklike, almost the bedrock of our existence; a masculine title that, with a light backflip, the commander of a commando unit could use.

Now all is ready for the choice of targets, most of them by process of elimination. Not the actual leaders of Hamas, with whom we want to keep the channels of communication open for a cease-fire. And not its strategic weapons, since a strike at them would goad Hamas into firing at Tel Aviv those same long-range rockets that will not be struck in the first attack lest they not survive the second.

We would also like there to be no casualties, whose deaths could lead to an additional escalation. A limited, minimal operation, with a wink to Hamas’ leadership: Understand us, for goodness sake! We are dealing with public pressure, we can’t let this go by without doing something, but the headquarters are off-limits – in Gaza and the Kirya in Tel Aviv. Each one will get its points and go home, whether to Ramadan or Ramat Gan.

And since honor is sometimes more important than life itself – and in the Middle East people are even willing to kill for the sake of family honor, religion or the tribe – people in Israel know that the last rocket will be launched from the west to the east or from the south to the north.

This strategy of the last strike goes against the army’s doctrine, which sanctifies the first strike, and only history will tell who matches the regional conditions more closely.

After all, the calm Bar Lev-style description of the military achievement during the Six-Day War – “Strong, quick and with elegance” – has melted with the wars (the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the others that followed), becoming weak, slow and clumsy.

For this reason, the best alternative, as far as the minds in the operational, planning and intelligence departments and their superiors are concerned, is not war, but a war film – sounds of gunfire and pyrotechnics, with ketchup instead of blood.

Not a conflagration, but a simulated one to extinguish embers that ignited. It is easier said than done, since a Palestinian rocket or Israeli bombardment striking a high-quality target is enough – in the view of the victim – to turn the show into a nightmare.

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