Tel Aviv, Israel — Israel’s military is unusual in many ways, but start with this: A patch on Captain Omri Levy’s sleeve alludes to a Mel Brooks joke. The patch reads: “It’s good to B200 King.”
The B200 King is a Beechcraft used by the Israelis for reconnaissance. “It’s good to be the king” was a laugh line delivered by Mel Brooks in his 1981 film History of the World: Part I. The phrase entered American pop culture, where it has remained ever since. To take just one example: Jeffrey Goldberg used it as the lead for his recent Atlantic profile of Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Captain Levy, however, was born in 1986 and is not familiar with the comedic stylings of Mel Brooks. So I ask about another patch on his uniform, one that shows a camel sprouting wings. This story he knows well: Back in 1947, Egyptians, Syrians, and other Arabs planning to go to war to prevent the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab nations — the original two-state solution — scoffed at the prospect of a Jewish air force, saying that it would come about “when camels learn to fly.” And so, the following year, the first squadron of the Israeli Air Force took the winged camel as its symbol.
I’m at a military base in north Tel Aviv, among a group of American journalists being briefed on Israel’s use of air power. The Israelis use both drones and piloted aircraft to gather “visint” — visual intelligence. But their mission is not just to identify targets. They also do everything they can to avoid collateral damage. “We make sure there are no civilians around the targets,” the briefer tells us. “We want to destroy Hamas’s ability to shoot rockets at us — but we’re not trying to kill people.”
We’re shown a film, taken from a B200 King, of two shadowy figures apparently preparing to launch a rocket from Gaza into Israel. As soon as the figures move away, the rocket is destroyed from the air. I ask whether those seen in the film were targeted later. No, the briefer says, they were allowed to get away because there was a chance — however remote — that they were not terrorists, that they stumbled upon the rocket and were examining it out of curiosity.
He notes that Israelis now have weapons so precise they can target a single room in a building, doing no harm to those in adjoining rooms. During last year’s conflict in Gaza, Israelis would also phone people to warn them to leave buildings that contained ordnance, weapons caches, or command-and-control facilities. Sometimes, too, the Israelis would “knock”: Very small, relatively harmless bombs would be dropped on the roofs of buildings in order to further encourage people to leave.
I point out how unusual such practices are. Throughout history, military strategists have sought to demoralize their enemies, to defeat them conclusively, or at least lead them to the conclusion that the cost of continuing the conflict would be unacceptably high. I ask if Israelis may instead be teaching Gazans that a long war, with Israel’s extermination as the goal, is tolerable. He says he’s not sure, but he does know this: Israelis believe it is important to distinguish between Hamas and the people of Gaza.
Is that distinction valid? Gazans voted for Hamas in 2006 but there have been no elections since. A poll taken in March shows support for Hamas in Gaza down to about 20 percent. And, in the aftermath of the last year’s fighting, a clear majority of Gazans, 60 percent, believe that waging war against Israel does them more harm than good.
It is against this backdrop that Secretary of State John Kerry is attempting to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Among the hurdles he faces: Hamas has no intention of giving up power in Gaza, nor does Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas speak for Hamas or the people of Gaza. In 2005, Abbas also was elected to a four-year term, and he, too, has not faced voters a second time. His popularity in the West Bank is far from solid. An Israeli analyst — who also identifies himself as a Palestinian and a Muslim — suggests what this means: “Abbas has no mandate to make peace with Israel.”
What’s more, any concessions Abbas might make would be seen by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran’s rulers, and other Islamists in the region as a betrayal. Could this explain, at least in part, why Abbas has refused to negotiate with Israelis for more than four years? Does it really make sense for him to sit down for talks if (1) he knows he can’t deliver a deal and (2) he’ll be painting a bull’s-eye on his back if he makes a serious attempt?
I never fail to be astonished by how many “experts” refuse to grapple with such questions in their rush to propose the most banal and facile solutions. One example: Dov Waxman, an associate professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, argues that the key to peace is “applying pressure on Israel.” Waxman goes on to lament that “American Jews are not likely to exercise the same kind of pressure on Israel that Irish-Americans applied on Sinn Fein–IRA, which [led] it to renounce violence and disarm.”
Does the professor really believe that Israelis — who confront terrorism every day and, as noted above, go to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming Palestinian civilians — are themselves akin to terrorists? Is he seriously suggesting that Israelis “disarm”? Is he unable to imagine the consequences were such advice to be followed?
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen also promotes the dubious notion that just as “Irish-Americans played a significant role in the Northern Ireland peace” so “American Jews can have similar influence on Israel-Palestine.” But Cohen at least acknowledges that many Palestinians “still dream of all the land, the destruction of Israel” and that “nothing would advance the just cause of Palestinian statehood faster than the irrevocable renunciation of violence by all factions and reconciliation between them on the basis of territorial compromise with Israel.”
I envision Palestinian leaders taking such steps when camels learn to fly. But as Israelis have demonstrated time and again, anything can happen.
– Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.