The waiting game

Published in Haaretz

The waiting game is over. If the cease-fire holds, there will be no ground invasion of Gaza. At least, not now. For eight days, our locale determined our reality. Around 15 percent of the country was under direct attack, while a much broader band had rockets skirting its daily consciousness and, as of Wednesday, bus bombings.

Most of us have family or friends who spent the week in the range of fire. Ashkelon, home to my nephew and his 87-year-old grandfather – a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz – endured 24 rockets in a single day this week, each red alert prompting a 45-second dash for a shelter or reinforced room. My brother-in-law, a social worker and a reserve colonel in the home front, managed the chaos from Ashdod.

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Our soldiers and reservists tried not to get jumpy on standby. The rest of us, when not driving into or out of rocket range, remained on edge by obsessively watching the news. Networks went 24/7, so any broadcaster capable of sitting up straight did anchor duty, while every sentient commentator or former official was dragged out of obscurity to fill airtime with impassioned advice. When we tired of psychologists on Israeli stations telling us to reduce stress by not watching news coverage, we switched to CNN, BBC or Fox. We were tethered umbilically to e-mail, SMS and Facebook, in this first social network war. Thank God for the radio, because we should not be typing while we’re driving. The mantra of “Red Alert for Be’er Sheva” or “Ashdod” or “Sderot” in its prerecorded female voice settled into our brains.

We didn’t expend much energy imagining the nightmare Palestinians in Gaza lived through, without shelters or early-warning systems, or time to get out of the way. We had one horrific miss, killing an entire family – a human tragedy and a PR disaster. There is no moral equivalency – they were aiming at civilians and we were not – but we can hardly claim the loss of civilian life was justified in every single sortie.

We are told we hit more than 1,300 top-priority sites – armories, smuggling tunnels, headquarters, broadcast facilities – major achievements, although the rockets kept coming. Iron Dome was a phenomenal success (thank you, President Obama and Amir Peretz ), but not hermetic. The poor, dead victims of Kiryat Malakhi last Thursday were chided for not taking cover, an instant fable with the moral, Follow rocket protocol and you’ll probably survive.

So were we rattled? Children under bombardment absorb stress in ways we can’t always see right away, so it’s too early to tell how they were affected. Outside the firing zone, judging by my colleagues’ eye pouches, some of us slept fitfully, others not at all. The weird thing is that most Israelis everywhere seemed to stay calm.

The irresistible siren of solidarity prevented much debate about whether or not we should have gotten into this war or who started it. We waited, compulsively mulling next steps, our minds trapped in logic loops of conventional wisdom with a 12-hour shelf life, most of which intersected at the junction of, will we or won’t we?

Loop 1. Both sides wanted a truce, but both sides wanted to be the winner. We had to ratchet up the pressure to restore our deterrent capability so Hamas would learn its lesson. But Hamas thought it had the upper hand, with its Egyptian sponsor…

Loop 2. We were reluctant to risk a ground invasion and more dead children, but our lack of eagerness – Avigdor Lieberman, of all people, said our motives would be suspect if we conducted a ground invasion so close to elections – emboldened Hamas to increase its demands.

Loop 3. Last time we didn’t finish the job and overthrow Hamas. We had to provide quiet to the south and make sure the rockets don’t return, but the successors to Hamas would likely be worse and nobody wants to occupy Gaza again.

Loop 4. Egypt desperately wanted donor dollars more than a conflagration, but President Morsi was eager to champion the Palestinians and his ideological little brother, Hamas, to prove Mubarak’s collusion with Israel is history. Egypt scored big as the mediator, but should it have worried us so much?

Excluded from these loops were discordant notes, such as the report from Gershon Baskin, who had helped negotiate Gilad Shalit’s release, that Ahmad Jabari was considering a long-term truce just when we assassinated him, and that he might have been the one person capable of implementing such a plan.

The Palestinian Authority, which has eschewed violence, was still vilified for its UN moves and portrayed as a weak, non-alternative to Hamas, while Arab citizens of Israel who protested attacks on their relatives in Gaza were called a fifth column.

Both sides climbed down from the ladder. Despite the “mission accomplished” message of our leadership triumvirate, it’s not clear what we gained beyond temporary quiet. We did not give in to the temptation to overthrow Hamas. But will we change course and build up the PA, or negotiate with Hamas? Or did we simply reset the waiting game clock?

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