Greetings and guesses from Tel Aviv



Editor’s note: Boulder Weekly columnist Paul Danish is in Israel and will be writing several pieces in the coming weeks about his personal observations on the ongoing conflict there.

Greetings from Tel Aviv.

When things got chippy in Gaza last month, I figured Israel could use an extra tourist. So here I am.

The last time I was here was almost 21 years ago.

When I flew into Israel on the night of Jan. 14, 1991 — 48 hours before the start of the Gulf War — the country was tighter than an over-wound watch.

The streets of Tel Aviv were largely empty, both of traffic and pedestrians. The restaurants that were open all had TVs on and tuned to the news. The people who weren’t watching the news were mostly talking about it. And not loudly, which was out of character.

Most people had prepared a “sealed room” in their apartments by taping plastic over the windows and keeping a roll of duct tape at the ready to seal the door in case of a gas attack.

When I checked into my hotel I was issued a gas mask kit. The kit also contained an injection of atropine (the antidote for nerve gas but a poison itself) that you were supposed to inject yourself with if you were exposed.

There was good reason for the concern. Saddam Hussein had threatened to retaliate against Israel if the U.S.-led coalition that was preparing to toss him out of Kuwait (of which Israel was not a part) actually tried to do so. He had previously threatened to use gas against Israel and had previously used nerve gas in the course of putting down a Kurdish revolt. He was both militarily and psychologically capable of carrying out the threat.

The hotel I checked into had prepared a sealed room on each floor. Two days later I used the one on mine. No gas, but I could hear the Scud ballistic missiles exploding around town over the howl of the air raid sirens as I taped the door.

That was then.

I’m back in Tel Aviv at the same hotel — renamed and modestly remodeled — and things couldn’t be more different.

No sealed rooms, no gas masks in sight, no preparations for the end of days, streets full of traffic and people, cafes and coffee shops doing a brisk business, and more talk about the impending national election (set for Jan. 22) than about “the security situation.”

This is a bit odd.

Three weeks ago, Hamas was launching rockets at Tel Aviv and sirens were going off in town, and a force of about 100,000 was poised to invade the Gaza Strip and help Hamas’ excitable boys reach paradise (or at least room temperature).

Last week the Western press was full of stories about Syria’s Bashir Assad (who is increasingly looking like a short-timer) loading up assorted ordnance with sarin nerve gas in preparation for some sort of last-ditch defense of his regime, or maybe in preparation for a going-out-of-business Gotterdammerung.

Somewhat inexplicably, the Israeli press has been downplaying the story.

The big news (for three or four days) was the U.N. vote granting the Palestinian Authority non-voting observer status, Israel’s riposte authorizing construction of additional housing in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and Western governments crabbing about the latter. By week’s end the press was more interested in who the various parties had picked as their candidates in the election than in Syrian poison gas.

So what’s going on here?

Here are a few guesses.

1. The U.N. vote and the West Bank housing.

A few months ago I suggested in this space that it has been known for at least 20 years (but rarely said aloud) that the Palestinians could unilaterally declare a state any time they wanted and Israel could unilaterally draw the boundaries of that state.

The U.N. and the West Bank housing announcement represent the Palestinians taking a step toward statehood and Israel taking a step toward border-drawing.

Neither side much cares what effect this might have on the “peace process,” because, although they won’t admit it, they both gave up on it a long time ago.

Netanyahu probably figures that there is no point talking peace with Abbas, because Abbas doesn’t have the clout to make a peace agreement stick, no matter how generous the terms. He can’t make the minimal concessions necessary to have a successful negotiated settlement — recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and renouncing a Palestinian right of return to Israel proper.

Worse, he can’t stop the “incitement,” which is Israeli shorthand for the Palestinian practice of wallowing in a poisonous mixture of anti-Semitism, glorification of Jihad and xenophobia, and marinating their kids in it, which all but guarantees than any peace agreement that might emerge would be stillborn. So Abbas finds reasons not to negotiate, and Netanyahu is relieved that he does.

Just guessing, but I suspect this process will before too long result in the emergence of a Palestinian state with an Israeli-drawn border without the two sides negotiating either. That will not result in peace, but it will result in the conflict being recast as a border dispute, which may make it more manageable.

2. Why Netanyahu was so quick to end the war with Hamas.

Just guessing again – I think it’s because he wants Hamas to survive for now — for two reasons, which are contradictory.

Reason one: As long as Hamas is around, he is under no real pressure to negotiate a settlement with Abbas (as opposed to letting a Palestinian state and its border emerge from mutual unilateral actions). What’s the point of settling with Abbas if Hamas instantly rejects the settlement and continues the conflict? As long as Hamas doesn’t turn Gaza into a forward Iranian missile base that threatens Israeli’s major population centers and airbases (not in that order), I’m guessing Netanyahu can live with it. Lenin used to talk about “useful idiots.” Netanyahu may have decided Hamas is Israel’s useful assholes.

Reason two: Hamas probably has more legitimacy among Palestinians than Abbas does. It probably would be more able to make a peace agreement stick than Abbas ever could, if it chose to enter into one. Just guessing, but Netanyahu may think that Hamas may ultimately be a more promising peace partner than Abbas. Hamas is adamant that it will be a cold day in hell before it makes peace with Israel, but then stranger things have happened — including the Oslo Accords, which were considered impossible until they were announced. And Nixon, of all people, went to China…

3. Why Israel is seemingly so relaxed about Assad’s poison gas.

To be sure, Assad poses a danger to Israel, but I’m guessing it’s not a very big one. Unlike Iran’s Ahmadinejad, who is into Islamic end of days theology, Assad is a secularist. He may be fatalistic about his personal chances of surviving Syria’s civil war, but I’m guessing he is not into gratuitously committing national suicide, which is what a gas attack on Israel would be tantamount to.

My guess is that Assad is hauling his nerve gas up to the Alawite regions of Syria to deter the soon-to-be victorious Sunni revolutionaries from massacring his sect. In other words, the move may be more desperately defensive than desperately offensive.

I’m also guessing that Israel’s real concern is not that Assad wants to launch a gas attack on it, but that his gas might fall into Hezbollah’s or al Qaida’s hands — and those concerns may be taken quantum leaps upward. Over last weekend, there were reports that Syrian rebels overran a “chloride factory” at al Safira east of Aleppo, which appears to have been the cover for a major chemical weapons and ballistic missile depot. On Dec. 10, an Israeli website,, reported that the rebels were from the al Nusra front, which is affiliated with al Qaida. The website also said the rebels were pushed out of the factory, but that they had overrun a big government base at Sheikh Suleman to the east of al Safira, effectively cutting off the chemical weapons depot. There were also reports over the weekend (in the London Times) that Israeli Special Forces were operating on the ground in Syria to neutralize chemical weapons.

Just guessing here, but it wouldn’t be surprising if these events were related.


This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.