TEL AVIV, Israel—In the Stella Maris church in Haifa—not far from where the town’s first Katyusha rocket landed—colorful scenes from the Bible are painted on the dome. Brother Luigi Poggi, thinking of stories related to the immediate area, made the obvious choice for the most dramatic scene he painted: the prophet Elijah swept up in a chariot of fire.
But Thursday evening, the area residents weren’t thinking about the heavenly “Chariots and horses of Israel.” They were talking about earthly, man-made airplanes and airstrikes. They were saying things like, “It’s time to put an end to it.” They were asking, “Where is the IDF?” They were preaching, “We should bomb Beirut/Damascus/Tehran.” They were angry but also calm. One of them, Uri Bino, said, “The moment has arrived. We knew it was going to come someday, and here it is.” He was neither surprised nor particularly sad but rather practical in tone, imitating a military staccato so as to emphasize that this is a time for action, not for introspection.
Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon six years ago, but the border has never really been calm. The Islamist Hezbollah sat at the other side of the fence, arming, preparing, and defying anyone who might have thought it was time to get rid of the pariah organization. Hezbollah operated without any regard for the Lebanese government and took orders—and supplies—from Syria and Iran. It lit small fires once in a while—shooting at villages, targeting passing military airplanes, abducting soldiers—but it was careful not to go too far, forcing Israel to live with this inconvenient coexistence for a very long time. Now, it seems, that has finally ended.
It’s very hard to define the exact moment in which a nuisance turns into something you just can’t live with anymore. It’s not just the kidnapped soldiers on the border—that has happened before. Just months after the withdrawal, in October 2000, three IDF soldiers were abducted from the Har Dov area. Ehud Barak, prime minister at the time, decided to let it pass—and his approach was repeated many times by his successor, Ariel Sharon, who carried many scars from his previous involvement with Lebanon and preferred not to open a “second front” in addition to the one in the Palestinian territories. But where Barak and Sharon chose restraint over action, the current prime minister chose to go the other way and for many good reasons.
You can hear them on every street corner, in every cafe, and in almost every living room: people of the right and the left, young and old, from north and south—frustrated, toughened, disillusioned.
They are disillusioned with “the Arabs.” “Look,” Eli Sherr, a typical centrist Kadima voter living in an affluent neighborhood in northern Tel Aviv, told me, “We tried everything and failed. We have left Gaza and Lebanon, but the attacks won’t stop. We got some credit in the world for our withdrawals—but the enemy kept looking for trouble. What else can we do? We have to make them understand that there’s a line they can’t cross.” He was articulating the thought most Israelis now share: Negotiation failed and made us favor unilateral withdrawal, but now it seems that’s not working either. The enemy keeps finding excuses to attack. And where there’s no option for either negotiation or unilateral steps, the military option is the only one left.
Which brings Israel to its current, fighting mode. “True, military raids also failed to bring calm to the area—but what else can we do?” asked Sherr. His wife, Naomi Sherr, added, “We can’t sit and wait for them to act at the time of their choosing. If peace is a lost cause anyway, let’s keep the initiative on our side and make the enemy worried about our actions instead of us being worried about them.”
But frustration is the most visible motive for the current Israeli mood. It’s not with the Arab militants, Palestinian Hamas or Lebanese Hezbollah; it’s not with the impotent international community that failed to act on its pledge to disarm Hezbollah in Lebanon; it’s not even with the diminishing prospect for peace.
Israelis are frustrated with their own leadership and military, they are tired of words of restraint and broader considerations. “If there is an IDF, let it show itself now!” wrote a notable Israeli professor, Dan Meiron, during the first Gulf War when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, under heavy pressure from Washington, chose not to react to Iraqi missiles falling on populated areas. Meiron’s article was considered hysterical and irresponsible, and the decision Shamir made is generally considered to be one of the finest moments of his tenure.
But this cry for the military to act—to react—is now more vocal and more desperate than it was 15 years ago. After all, it was a military failure that led to the abduction and escalation in Gaza, and yet another failure on the Lebanese border that led to the kidnapping of another two soldiers and the further deterioration on the northern front. “Where is the military?” asked Yigal Chefetz, a Haifa resident, reflecting what many Israelis feel. “Our illustrious army, one of the most advanced in the world, with its nuclear option, its fighter planes that can fly to Tehran and back, its unmanned aerial vehicles and drones and guided missiles, has been caught twice with its pants down,” wrote veteran commentator Yoel Marcus in this morning’s Ha’aretz.
In this atmosphere, no military officer and no civilian decision-maker can even think about restraint. Reaching at least one of the two goals they set for this current operation in Lebanon—bringing the soldiers back home and “changing to rules of the game,” meaning no more Hezbollah militias on the Israeli border—will decide not only the future of the northern front but also the political future of Israel’s leaders.