Nearing the red line

Israel also faces a test of leadership. I don’t envy the prime minister. Who is taking the lead? The leader or the public?

Damage to an Ashkelon home hit by a rocket.  (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Damage to an Ashkelon home hit by a rocket.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Here’s a little story: A few weeks ago, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee visited the IDF Gaza Division, deployed along the seam line between Gaza and Israel, the most heated border in recent months. There, for the first time, we saw photos of teenagers launching kites. I asked: “Is that teenager with a kite in his hands a target?” The commander answered clearly and decisively: “No.” The incendiary kites and balloons with tails of fire have since become a real security problem. One fact has not changed: Then, and today, the IDF does not see these kites as a casus belli. While the commander reiterated this, we’re moving one inch at a time on a path leading Israel and Hamas to a fourth round of warfare.
This is an example of the so-called “dynamics of the Middle East.” If there’s one thing we can expect in our region, in the Middle East, it’s the unexpected. Everything is unexpected. And that’s how wars break out. It’s not what we intend or what we want, but we’re dragged into war in the end.
Here’s a historical example, distant yet significant: the Six Day War. The war broke out in June 1967 after long weeks of uncontrolled dynamics. Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser made speeches and blocked the Straits of Tiran, Israel mobilized reserves, prepared the home front for war, Moshe Dayan pushed Levi Eshkol out as defense minister, Syria and Jordan joined forces in great excitement and suddenly, almost without noticing it, war erupted.
The ensuing 51 years brought additional confrontations, in a different atmosphere. In 2018, the public exposure has grown, the words and declarations on both sides have escalated, social media (expressing the public’s will) have become a regular and influential actor that prods the leaders to make decisions, sometimes against their own wishes and intentions. 
Israel and Hamas do not seek a confrontation at this time. In the three military operations since the disengagement, Gaza was badly hurt and Hamas is struggling to recover. It is obliged to respond to pressure from Iran, but it knows perfectly well that another battle could be its last. If Israel does not topple Hamas, the internal pressure, due to economic sanctions, could lead the residents of Gaza to rise up against Hamas.
Israel is not looking for a war. It has already experienced enough wars. Especially now, when the strategic confrontation is in the north, vis-à-vis a real enemy, wily and powerful: Iran. Syria is an old-new battlefield. The IDF is trying to avoid engagement in two fronts at the same time, though it is undoubtedly capable of doing this.
Nonetheless, the confrontation is at the doorstep.
The terror of the kites, which began as an almost laughable tactic, now clearly symbolizes the asymmetric conflict. It’s funny that the biblical hero Samson adopted precisely the same method to burn the fields of his enemies. He caught foxes, attached torches to their tails, and set them loose in the fields and orchards of the Philistines. The result was similar to the result today: fire and smoke, frustration and sorrow. Israel, which has developed the world’s most advanced interception systems, has yet to find a solution for the kites and balloons. The IDF has not managed to provide a safety net for the residents of the Gaza border region. In the battle for consciousness, the Palestinians have gained a victory.
The population in the south, which has experienced long periods of fire and injuries, is calling for vigorous action to quench this blaze. Their natural environment is being destroyed and they are under psychological assault. This is a war for consciousness. A sense of insecurity has suddenly spread and ignited the population. Opinion polls published this week indicate that the public sees Hamas as the winner of last weekend’s round and believes that Israel should have rejected the cease-fire. Most of the public does not support the government’s policy of restraint.
Politicians are attentive to public opinion. The cabinet hurried to instruct the IDF to stop the kites. IDF commanders focus on professional considerations. They see not only the immediate action but also the next, inevitable stage. One miscalculated step could sweep the entire south into another pointless war, like the three previous ones.
The leaked discussion in the cabinet between Education Minister  Naftali Bennett and IDF Chief of Staff  Gadi Eisenkot saliently reflects this. Bennett demanded action: “Kites are a Qassam [rocket] and mortar shell.” The same thing. The chief of staff, cool-headed, having seen a thing or two in his military career, responded that firing at these teenagers would be “contrary to our operational and moral outlook.” This is very significant: The chief of staff was reminding the cabinet of the moral constraints of this war, and what is permissible and forbidden under international law. This is a great moral test.
Israel also faces a test of leadership. I don’t envy the prime minister. Who is taking the lead? The leader or the public? Will the social media, demonstrations, news reports, pictures of the fields and the public’s wounded consciousness push Israel into another futile war? Or will the leadership carefully choose measured steps that combine diplomacy with economic and military measures? The public is standing with a stopwatch; it has limited patience. A right-wing government is supposed to respond accordingly. But the government is wary of the price, and the army and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) are sounding warnings.
We should recall that public opinion is very fickle. When, heaven forbid, the funerals come, rockets fall in Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion Airport shuts down, the UN enters the picture, the EU expresses reservations, the International Court of Justice in The Hague considers taking action – public opinion will swing the other way. The public will ask: What are we doing there anyway? 
This weekend will be critical. The government is trapped between the public’s militancy and the army’s moderation and caution. The situation, of course, is usually the opposite. But Israel is a different state. This is a true test of leadership and I suggest: Go with the IDF, take a deep breath and calm the public. Don’t get dragged into war. You’ll never regret a war that didn’t erupt.

The writer is a member of Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for the Zionist Union. His latest book,
Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion, has recently been published.