Zen and the Art of Gaza Maintenance

The snapshot of 2008 is likely to appear in hindsight to be much like that of 2009.

Despite prevailing media winds, history does not tailor itself to arbitrary dates of the beginning and end of the calendar year, but usually sees the ebb and flow of foolishness or wisdom cross over from year to year. The snapshot of 2008, therefore, is likely to appear in hindsight to be much like that of 2009.

Such is the picture snapped this week of leading Likud members, old and new, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Moshe Ya'alon, Yuval Steinitz and Limor Livnat gazing toward the Gaza Strip. Their jaws protrude, their eyebrows furrow, their eyes squint like Clint Eastwood and their lips promise they will topple the Hamas regime, stop the rocket fire and bring back security.

Likud is not alone in this. Kadima's Tzipi Livni also vows to topple the Hamas government, to eliminate the rocket threat. In fact, there is hardly a party in Israel whose representatives have not gazed toward Gaza recently - some with binoculars and others with the naked eye, some squintingly enraged and others furrowedly determined.

But don't ask Livni, Netanyahu, Ya'alon, Steinitz or Livnat how exactly they plan on doing the toppling and eliminating - by what means or at what price. The candidates have hinted that the secrets are known only to themselves, but somehow they always seem to lose the napkin with the code on it the moment they enter office.

Elections and promises have always gone together, even if everyone knows that even in the best case scenario - a candidate accomplishing something - it will be the opposite of what he or she promised. But since no election adviser will recommend the only appropriate, fair slogan available: "Do I know? Vote for me and we'll see," the candidates blather endlessly and shamelessly into our ears with their hollow promises, without offering any substantiation or rational explanations.

They know, after all, that the public in any case votes against governments and policies, not in favor of an orderly, considered transfer of power.

Against the barrages of empty promises and criticism of others, another rationale begins to emerge, characterized by the sheer force of its strangeness and represented by, of all people, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. It seems as if he, tired of ruses and wisecracks, has reached insights and revelations discovered until now only by the patient and wise General Kutuzov of "War and Peace" and the Zen philosopher Lao Tzu.

Has Barak been delving into Taoist literature? "He who speaks does not know, and he who knows does not speak," said Lao Tzu. Our own Zen master recently told cabinet members, "Mind your tongues, for such things do not help one's endurance. We don't need to compete over who wants to harm Hamas more, and who hates it more."

"Practice inaction and everything will come into its place," said the ancient sage. The wise man from North Tel Aviv's luxurious Akirov Towers adds, "Even three divisions are not likely to stop the rocket fire... In hindsight, we will ask ourselves if we have not missed other opportunities."

Barak's new insights are not confined only to Gaza. "We are strong enough to topple Syria and its regime, but afterwards we will have to sit with it for negotiations," he said. About his detractors, he adds, "Take a chameleon and throw it on grass - it will turn green. Throw it on dirt and it will turn brown." Whoever understands, understands. Or doesn't.

Barak is smiling like a Buddha. In Israel, it is well known, there is only one way to determine whether we're being exposed to the ruminations of a genius or meaningless drivel - war. If the fighting is awe-inspiring and quick, we are in the presence of genius. If it results in a fiasco, we stand before idiocy, if not criminality.

But maybe there are other, less bloody, ways to figure out whether Barak is on to something. Against the Arabs we have tried both overwhelming victories and abject failures, both unilateral withdrawals and fruitless negotiations. We have only just started trying modesty, sitting quietly, releasing ourselves from automatic reactions, and using concerted action only when necessary.

It is clear that in our situation, inaction and meditation will not help. But at least we will be able to look into our mothers' eyes and say we tried everything.