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Israel: growing sense of war

And then the conversation turned to the war. The next war.

I can’t remember how we rounded that corner, how we hit against that brick wall. It was last Friday, a beautiful evening, and we sat on a rooftop with a view of all there is to see in Tel Aviv – not that much, except for the sunset over the Mediterranean. It was a small party of Americans, most of them experienced with Israel, longtime residents if not citizens. Familiar with war, in other words.

“It’s coming this summer,” someone said, laughing. We all laughed. We joked that they should start the war when we’re out of the country for the summer: not so we’ll be out of danger, but so the summer vacation will extend itself until the eventual ceasefire. “Who knows about this war?” asked someone, a novice to Israel, incidentally a goy, only dating a Jew. “How can I find out about it?”

“Don’t ask our bosses,” went the answer, “they won’t say anything.” The laughter continued. We swapped stories about past wars, we talked about how much fun they were, about how good the view would be from this roof, and how you could never know. We laughed some more, and then changed the subject. What else can you do with wars?

***

The rumors of new fun have been growing in recent weeks. The reason is not clear, and perhaps not important; Hizbollah has Scuds now, it seems, and so the balance is threatened. As it was four years ago. As it was with Hamas a year and a half ago. And A.F.K. Organski’s theory of the “Phoenix Factor” – that a losing side in a war will rebuild their economy to the same levels it would have reached without the war in a small amount of time – proves itself again and again. Until the next war.

But the rumors have been gaining steam and salience. A friend of a friend, a person who knows people who know things, claims the Defense Ministry is preparing for action up north this summer. In the Haaretz this week, the left-leaning paper of record in Israel, a reserve Brigadier General makes the argument that Syria’s regime has to be toppled in the next war; they were the ones who gave Hizbollah the Scuds.

This isn’t the first cycle of war talk this year. In February, a back and forth between Israel and Syria erupted in the press. First one defense minister, then the other foreign minister, then the first country’s foreign minister, until at last, the newspapers assured us, contacts were made between the two countries that promised they really didn’t want war. Apparently that’s changed.

Most laughable about that February exchange was that it started with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stating that the two sides would stumble into the next war, fight, and then talk over the exact same things they would talk about now. Even comments for peace lead to war around here.

***

There is a purpose to war, actually. One of the big theories in conflict resolution is the ripeness theory of William Zartman. In short, it suggests that for conflicting parties to make the decision to work for peace, they have to be ripe, which involves two conditions: they must both be suffering in a “mutually hurting stalemate” that means neither side believes they can win, and they must see a potential exit from this fighting. The grim corollary of Zartman’s theory, then, is that war is sometimes necessary to induce peace.

It’s worked before in the Middle East. Many point to Kissinger’s behavior in the 70’s as proof he wanted to induce pain on the Israelis side around the Yom Kippur War, so that they realized they had to give (territories) to get (peace). The same may have been true with the Oslo Accords, coming off the 1st Intifada which first truly made Israelis aware of the horrors of being an occupying nation.

The problem is that no one really believes peace is coming anymore, nor that it will be worth it when they get here. The long delayed, maybe forthcoming proximity talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel via George Mitchell hold as much promise as an empty eggshell. If they lead to direct talks, great, but no one can really bank on it. And if the result is another disengagement and withdrawal from a territory that will turn into a hostile entity ala Gaza, then no thank you, believe Israelis. They have a point.

And meanwhile, behind the turmoil in the north Iran looms. Just as they did in our conversation; we agreed with the Iranian cleric who said a week ago that the earthquakes were the fault of all the bare-shoulder women around the world and around our table. Next they’ll cause wars.

***

Drums of peace rumble quietly amidst the abstaining sun as well. One prominent journalist just pleaded with Prime Minister Netanyahu to make peace with Syria and kick start peace operations to avoid isolation. Of course, that open letter puts the blame on just about everybody except Netanyahu for the situation, and this is the same journalist who made [i]ad hominem[/i] attacks based on anonymous sources of Netanyahu’s main rival, Tzipi Livni, before the 2009 election. Never mind; there’s a reason chutzpah comes from a Jewish language.

Another article proposed track two efforts for dialogue between Israelis and Iranians, expat ones if not actual residents of Iran. Which reminds me of my spring break this year, where I met three Iranians staying in the same hotel in another country. They disliked President Mahmud Ahmadinejad more than I could, and the youngest, a teenager, showed off a picture of his back striped in red three times, souvenirs from joining the green movement for Moussavi. The oldest Iranian in the group, near 60, talked about how both governments (the U.S. and Iran) lie to us, the citizens, and how there’s no reason for us to be unfriendly. They invited me to visit Tehran. And on the Persian music channel they watched, every artist was a resident of the U.S., mainly L.A. Shockingly, talking made us feel closer, and war feel even more absurd.

***

Last week held Israel’s Memorial and Independence days, back to back. The former, a somber day marked by sirens and ceremonies, fed into the raucous latter, a day of celebration, barbecues, and late night parties on rooftops like the one we had our conversation on.

Israel turned 62, and the country still celebrates every birthday with vigor and elation, pride and chest-beating. The Foreign Minister, President, and the Knesset Speaker all got into the fun, defending Israel’s right to Jerusalem and warning all who might doubt Israel to not underestimate us. Somehow, peace does not seem close.

So the rumors will grow. The efforts to avoid the next war will grow as well. One question is whether the latter will grow as fast as the former. Another is whether we can do anything except sit on the rooftops and joke, and laugh, and watch as the war begins.