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A Bloody Start for Israel's New Year

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Israel has moved on from this summer's war. The news media has been focused on budget battles, illegal immigrants and other matters. As is always the case before the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Israelis are interested in how far Israel has come, and what still needs to be done.

In a country that began 66 years ago with just 806,000 citizens (approximately the size of Indianapolis, Indiana, today), population statistics are still a source of ongoing interest. This year's number is 8,904,373 -- Israel just barely missed hitting the nine-million mark. Still, it's a ten-fold increase in six and a half decades, an astonishing accomplishment. To the extent that the Gaza War had lately been in the news, ironically, it had to do with poverty. As before every major Jewish holiday, newspapers focused on the number of poor Israelis for whom holiday food would be scarce; this year, though, slow distribution of funds and food was blamed in part on the war.

This morning, however, all of that changed, when we woke up to a reminder of how the Gaza war actually started. The alleged murderers of the three Israeli boys kidnapped in June were dead, killed by security forces in their hideout in Hebron. It was cut and dried; even Hamas acknowledged that they were dead, and made no effort to protest their innocence.

Unspoken, but clear to all, was the fact that no one here wanted the terrorists arrested. The boys' parents acknowledged openly that they were relieved that the killers had not been caught alive. When the terrorists were surrounded, the Israeli Defense Forces opened with heavy fire, and then, when the two refused to surrender and shot back, the IDF fired a rocket at the house. That was that.

At the cafes and in the small neighborhood markets this morning, there was no exultation -- just a sense of closure. I heard more than one person say, "It's good for those boys' parents -- they get to enter Rosh Hashanah at least knowing that their kids' killers are dead." But it was a muted relief, not the sort of public displays of joy that erupted in the U.S. following the killing of Osama bin Laden. Israelis didn't even celebrate when Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, was finally killed in 2004 after several attempts. Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza City after that killing, but Israelis went about their business. In large measure, that is because Israelis have no illusions. There will be other murderers; life in this region is a dangerous and depressing form of the children's Whac-a-Mole game.

The stakes of not getting the "mole" are deadly. But so, too, ironically, are the stakes of succeeding. Abbas al-Musawi, the Hezbollah leader whom Israel assassinated in 1992, was considered a fearsome threat; but compared to his successor Hassan Nasrallah, he now seems like an amateur. Thus, this morning's news was no cause for high-fives or flag waving. We know that this was not the last domino to fall. The Middle Eastern version of Whac-a-Mole evokes not fun, but dread.

We saw the domino syndrome even today. Whatever momentary satisfaction there might have been knowing the manhunt was over and that cold-blooded killers would never kill again, it all quickly turned into worry when the "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian Authority announced that because of the IDF operation, it would boycott the upcoming Cairo talks mandated by the terms of the cease-fire with Hamas. Was the quiet going to end? Thankfully not. Even Abbas had previously condemned the kidnappings -- in a tone strong enough to evoke a rare compliment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So the threat to boycott the talks was a lame bluff, and the PA quickly backed down.

For now, then, all quiet on the southern front. But not so in the north. Just hours after news of the shootout in Hebron, we learned that for the first time since 1982, Israel had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that crossed into Israeli airspace. There's nothing amusing about what is unfolding in Syria, but the Syrian leadership came closer to providing just a bit of levity today when it insisted that the downing of the plane was consistent with Israel's ongoing support for Islamic State.

That levity was a rarity, however. After a very bloody and depressing summer, the last thing Israelis want is another conflagration on another front. But in this tinderbox region, we know, clear red lines make a difference. Draw one but then ignore it, and your deterrent edge is gone. In this dizzying region, you sometimes have to shoot down a plane to keep the peace.

Unlike Jan. 1 in the West, Rosh Hashanah is not a holiday of revelry. It's a quiet day of reflection, of looking back, of gazing forward. As we look back beginning tomorrow night, Israelis will take enormous pride in what has been built here. And looking forward, most are likely to focus on the steely determination that we know will be required to keep this project aloft.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net