Israel fought its first war, in 1948, against five Arab nations — Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan — as well as the Palestinians. In the prediction of the fairly new CIA, the outcome was never in doubt: “Without substantial outside aid in terms of manpower and material, they [the Jews] will be able to hold out no longer than two years.” It has now been 66 years, but I fear that sooner or later, the CIA’s conclusion could turn out to be right.
It does not seem that way at the moment. The five Arab armies of 1948 are now down to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This is a struggle whose end cannot be in doubt. The Israelis will degrade Hamas’ military capabilities — its rocket-launching sites and its tunnels — and end for a time its ability to attack Israel. Every rocket, no matter how primitive and wobbly, is an act of war.
Since 1948, nation after nation has retired to the sidelines. Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia, which stayed out of the first war, has little desire for any subsequent one. Lebanon has been battered too often by Israel to still have a taste for war. Iraq is coming apart at the seams and can fight no one. Syria, too, is a chaotic mess, no longer really a nation and now more of a geographic designation. With the exception of Hezbollah and Hamas, no one much wants to fight. Happy days should be here ... again.
But they are not. In my estimation, Israel now fights not just to clear out the tunnels and rid Gaza of its rockets but for its very existence. This war that Israel will of course win has seen its once hapless enemy, Hamas, launch hundreds of rockets a day, some of them landing in the Tel Aviv area, a few going as far as Haifa. The Iron Dome anti-missile system has reportedly done wonders, but the law of averages insists that a rocket will get through and Tel Aviv will be hit — and then hit again.
The nations that once went to war vowing to push Israel into the sea are unstable, rickety creations. They are under siege not from Israel but from their own religious zealots. Whatever emerges is going to be either less accepting of Israel or maniacally intent on annihilating it. Even Egypt, which is now under military dictatorship, could revert once again to a government of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological parent of Hamas, and deeply anti-Semitic. In time, Israel could be surrounded by states that would make Hamas seem the soul of moderation. It does not, after all, go in for beheadings and such.
There is a sad metronomic rhythm to Israel’s wars with Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel wins every time, but every war is incrementally existential. Israelis are increasingly looking over their shoulder. About 60 percent of them either have or wish they had a second passport (often from an ancestral European country) and a large number of them — maybe as many as 500,000 — already live in the United States. The wayward Hamas rocket, so idiotically trivialized by Israel’s critics, doesn’t have to kill anyone to take a toll. People will seek safety as surely as water seeks its own level.
Hamas thinks it is winning the current war — which is why it rejected the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire proposal. Not a single major Hamas leader has been killed. Sooner or later an intermediary will insist on a peace agreement. That intermediary should be Secretary of State John Kerry. He must demand no more tunnels and no more rockets. Hamas can stay in Gaza, and Israel seems willing to ease its blockade. But both goods and funds have to be used to benefit the Palestinian people — not to build (or import) rockets or resume the tunneling.
A deal is there to be made — but the U.S. has to either make it or determine its outcome. The effort cannot be left to countries that are hostile to Israel — Turkey and Qatar come to mind — or the Middle East will once again wind up with a peace that is just a prelude to more war.
Israel is the legal creation of the United Nations. It has an absolute right not merely to exist but to do so safe from rockets or incursions by tunneling terrorists. In 1948, Harry Truman swiftly recognized Israel. America took the lead. It is time for it do so again.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.