In May 1969, the parents of the scouts group that I belonged to decided to veto our planned summer camp in Kibbutz Masada in the Jordan Valley. We thought they were cowards. This was at the height of the Jordan Valley’s War of Attrition, one of the most forgotten in Israeli history, which started almost as soon as the Six Day War was over. In addition to the almost daily sacrifice of soldiers on the Suez Canal in the better known War of Attrition with Egypt, 250 Israelis were killed, thousands wounded, houses destroyed and fields torched in the Jordan Valley in repeated terrorist incursions and under the Jordanian army’s incessant shelling.
Kibbutzniks lived from siren to siren, their children slept in bomb shelters, the towns of Beit Shean and Kiryat Shmona got a taste of their first Katyushas and this went on for an entire three years. Pressures by the kibbutz movements on the Mapai governments they were allied with didn’t help. The governments of Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir authorized deterrent air strikes and retaliatory incursions, but their overall message for the beleaguered residents of the Jordan Valley was – deal with it. Things are not going to change any time in the near future.
The government had no reason to fear the reaction of Israeli public opinion, which was still busy celebrating its miraculous victory in the 1967 war. The public mostly ignored news reports of the daily carnage among soldiers in the south and civilians in the north, which became so routine that they didn’t even make the main headlines. People were being killed, but in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities far from the conflict, life went on.
The difference between now and then is like night and day. In an age of 24/7 live TV and omnipresent social media, each shelling of an Israeli town has become unforgivable and each life lost is deemed intolerable. Public opinion demands instant and total solutions and the ability of governments to withstand the pressure is diminishing exponentially. There are myriad factors that contributed to this complete turnaround, and one of the more prominent is Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu was the first to identify and exploit the enormous potential of the combination of terror with media exposure. He dashed off to appear on camera with the devastation of bus bombings serving as his backdrop, put full blame for the atrocity on the government, depicted each and every terror attack as a casus belli and proposed instant, presto-chango solutions to every problem. Rather than talk to terrorists, we must destroy them, and peace will prevail, Netanyahu counseled.
The current flare-up in Gaza shows how Netanyahu has become a prisoner of his own words, how he gets repeatedly hoist with his own “petard,” the apt Shakespeare-era word for little bomblets used to breach walls. Netanyahu’s years of preaching against negotiations with any and all terrorists inhibited his ability and that of his government to reach a quick, long-term arrangement with Hamas, which he now yearns for. Any Hamas rocket carries with it the threat of causing a number of casualties that Netanyahu once described as justification for war, and any hesitation in carrying out such a decisive reaction would cast him as weak and accommodating, which is how he would invariably describe his predecessors when they faced terror.
But Netanyahu doesn’t want to go there either. Just before the incident in which Lt. Col. M. was killed, which sparked the current conflagration, Netanyahu was singing songs of peace and praising the impending deal with Hamas. In less than 24 hours, his uncharacteristically moderate stance blew up in his face. Now that he has seemingly achieved a cease-fire, Netanyahu will once again be confronted with his militant exhortations in the past. Despite all his years of experience, Netanyahu often forgets that in war or peace, his words assume a life of their own and may very well haunt him forever. It would be his cruel fate – or poetic justice, depending on your point of view – if it turns that the mouth that paved Netanyahu’s way to power is also the mouth that precipitates his fall.
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