Dawn, the morning after Israel's ground incursion into Gaza. Last night, I received an emergency IDF call-up order--via SMS. Israel, 2009. Gone are the days when such commands were hand-delivered or broadcast in code over the radio. Gone are the prearranged assembly points in town where members of various units would meet and file into specially-mobilized buses. Today we travel to our bases individually, often by cab. Yet the result is the same: The citizen army of Israel has been summoned and is heading to war.
To be sure, I am far beyond reserve age (two of my post-army kids are waiting for their call-ups), but have remained in the ranks because of my familiarity with the foreign press. Though I'll soon be signing off on a weapon and body armor, more efficaciously, I'll check out the maps, photographs, and statistic charts designed to reinforce Israel's case in the media. Such accoutrements can be as crucial as any tank on today's battlefield, where victory may hinge as much on individual valor as on a collective image on TV. And, with all due deference to Hamas's fighters, journalists often pose a more formidable challenge.
Last night, while packing my kitbag, I listened as foreign correspondents spoke of Israel's plan to "divide and conquer" the West Bank and Gaza Arabs, that Israel had "starved" and "strangled" Gazans and forced them to lash out with missiles, and that Gaza is "the world's most densely populated area." My job will be to remind journalists that Hamas, not Israel, conquered Gaza and cut it off from the West Bank; that Israel's closures of Gaza's borders were a response to, not the catalyst of, rocket strikes and that Gazans never remotely resembled the real victims of hunger in Darfur and Somalia; and that Tel Aviv is almost twice as densely-populated as Gaza.
More daunting than these tasks, though, is the looming obstacle of explaining Israel's war aims. In a few minutes, after I put on my uniform and sign on various lines, I will no longer have a personal opinion--not publicly, anyway--but only an army position. So we defend democracy by forgoing it. But I can still wonder what, exactly, Israeli leaders hope to achieve by this incursion. Is it the uprooting of Hamas and Gaza's transfer to a third party (Egypt?) pending its return to the Palestinian Authority? Or is it merely an enhanced status quo ante in which Hamas fires no missiles and, in return, receives unfettered supplies?
Irrespective of Israel's goals, my unit's job will be to afford the IDF the requisite time to achieve them by fostering a sympathetic press and, through it, an amenable diplomatic environment. The IDF has learned many lessons from its bitter Lebanon experience and the need for effective PR is one of them. I believe we can make a difference.
Nevertheless, as a soldier, I will have to keep the most compelling argument to myself. The truth is that the Gaza conflict, like the Lebanon war before it, is merely a tactical stage in a fateful strategic struggle. Iran throws us these left jabs on our borders, and keeps us preoccupied, all the while preparing its knockout nuclear punch. Israel may well prevail in Gaza, making up for its Lebanon pitfalls. But without addressing the real war and the ultimate enemy, victory will remain elusive.
Michael B. Oren, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.
By Michael B. Oren