I’ve read hundreds of articles by Yoel Marcus in my life, and I’d like to mention one of them. “Blood Poker” appeared in Haaretz on Friday, May 14, 1982. In it, Marcus described with surgical precision the plan Menachem Begin’s government was devising for an Israeli-initiated war in Lebanon – a war that indeed erupted three-and-a-half weeks later. He obtained the details, warned against the looming disaster and succeeded in getting it all past the military censor without deletions or revisions. It’s hard to imagine a greater achievement for an Israeli journalist who covers the state’s leadership and its management of foreign affairs and security. For that alone I would award Marcus the Sokolow Prize.
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Marcus wrote: “If all the talk, the rumors and the leaks about a war that’s being devised in the north aren’t a ploy, then this government is about to lose its political mind.” He attributed the information he revealed to “small conversations in cafes and society salons” – as though Tel Aviv were the St. Petersburg that Tolstoy described in “War and Peace,” in which the war against Napoleon is described as being conducted in the course of festive balls attended by the Russian nobility – a war in which the society women in the rear exercised greater influence than the generals on the front.
“Because the whole nation is an army and the whole country one big gossip column,” Marcus wrote, “the details of the coming war have long since become the common preserve.”
In the “big plan” Marcus described, the IDF would seize control of southern Lebanon and its Lebanese Christian allies would do the same in the north; a government of pro-Israel collaborators would be enthroned in Beirut; the PLO would be expelled from Lebanon to Syria, and with it the Syrian army; and if the Syrians should intervene, their surface-to-air missiles would be wiped out “within two hours,” as Prime Minister Begin had vowed. There you have the entire operational order and even the revelation of the most important strategic secret of that time: the Israeli air force’s ability to destroy quickly and easily the terrifying array of missiles that the Syrians had installed in South Lebanon.
Marcus was not enthusiastic about what he heard. “If this is not a ploy, and if serious consideration is being given to implementing what’s being bandied about in the cafés, then the government must be warned that it is gambling on the state’s fate in blood poker. This war is not essential, it will not bring us any military gain or any political gain, and the blood will be shed in vain.”
He also elaborated the risks: between 200 and 300 fatalities (exactly as occurred in the first week of the first Lebanon war); the PLO would move from Lebanon to the West Bank (exactly as occurred in the first intifada, a few years later); and Syria would intervene and the war would bog down (exactly as occurred during the 18 years that followed, until the IDF withdrew from Lebanon). Marcus’ only error was his prediction that the Soviet Union would join the fighting on the side of Syria (but there was no need for that, because Syria stood up well against the IDF, and in the end thwarted the plan for a new order in Lebanon). And his hope, as set forth in the coda to the article, that Begin, who was sensitive to losses, “will, in the end, not allow this madness to be fomented,” was not to be realized.
Begin did not stop the madness, which was fomented precisely according to the plan that Marcus heard “in cafes and salon conversations.” Later, the allegation that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had deceived Begin and expanded the goals of the operation behind the back of the militarily inexperienced prime minister took root in Israeli public opinion. Even I, who in the summer of 1982 was preparing for my high-school matriculation exams and was soon to be drafted, grew up with this story. I was only disabused of it when, during a stint of reserve duty, I interviewed Marcus for the IDF weekly Bamahane.
During that period I was writing for the Jerusalem weekly Ha’ir, and Marcus was the superstar of Haaretz and of the print press altogether. To prepare for this interview, I went to the archive to peruse his articles, and it was there that I came across an envelope with the words “Blood Poker” on it. Reading the article was a revelation: After all, the prime minister could have read Sharon’s war plan in Marcus’ article in Haaretz, even if the defense minister concealed the details from him (the disparity in the accounts stemmed from the fact that when the war actually broke out, the government approved a plan of reduced scale).
Years later, Marcus told me that the source for the story was not some “senior political source” or some Deep Throat in the IDF General Staff, but a colleague who served in the Military Police reserves, whose unit was assigned to man the checkpoints and policing in Beirut. The censors read the article and did not intervene, because they didn’t believe that the plan Marcus described was genuine. Regrettably, the Israeli public was not moved by the article either. There was no outcry of public opinion or from the great powers, or even a protest by the Syrians and the Palestinians, who did not try to prevent the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the conquest of their strongholds in the Land of the Cedars.
But none of that detracts from Yoel Marcus’ singular achievement or from the lesson it holds for journalists in all periods: Even the most highly regarded columnist is above all a reporter, and he must always be curious and ferret out stories. Because sometimes the scoop of a lifetime is lurking in a hallway conversation.