JERUSALEM -- It was Sunday night, four days into the war, the night that everyone but Americans first saw footage of U.S. prisoners of war in Iraqi hands. "Bush's war is getting tangled up," said the TV anchor on the country's most popular prime-time news show. "America is sinking deeper in the Iraqi quagmire." That wasn't Egyptian TV, or French, referring to "Bush's war." It was Israel's Channel Two. And the Hebrew word translated here as "quagmire" has a very specific connotation: It conjures up Israel's disastrous war of choice in Lebanon in 1982.
Those who'd like proof that Israelis support the war in Iraq could find it on page one of Israel's tabloids, which in the offensive's first few days competed at Americaphilia. But those front pages have been thin wrapping for doubts expressed by Israeli journalists and experts since the first day of the war. Looking at the situation from close up -- close to Iraq, close to the bitter experience of war -- they've criticized the United States for hubris, crucial misunderstandings of Iraqi society and lack of military discipline. Reporters, who themselves have learned the hard way that patriotism doesn't mean trusting generals, have been scandalized by the behavior of the American media. The subtext has sometimes boiled down to this: My God, this is Lebanon again, but lots bigger.
So, for instance, before the ground invasion started, correspondent Yigal Tzur reported to the daily Ma'ariv -- one of those apparently pro-U.S. tabloids -- from an American military column about to enter Iraq. He was with the lead driver, nicknamed Monkey, and Monkey was anxious. He chain-smoked to calm down, Tzur wrote, "despite orders not to smoke at night, despite the total blackout." Subtext: "Shape up, soldiers."
Several days later, Tzur wrote from a unit sobered by sniper fire, shellings and short rations -- and keeping the headlamps off while moving at night. "Already on Friday . . . I asked the commanders how the convoy could advance with full lights. 'Didn't you learn anything from the Lebanon War?' I asked. . . . Yesterday after the attack came the new orders: Total blackout."
The U.S. press took more heat. The war's second day, correspondent Dan Scemama said on Israel Radio that his American colleagues reminded him of Israeli journalists during the Lebanon War -- reporting in uniform and submitting to censorship. Back in Lebanon, Scemama himself infuriated the Israeli establishment when he filmed soldiers singing a reworked children's song with a bright melody:
Come down, airplane / and take us to Lebanon / we will fight for Sharon / and come home in a coffin.
In Iraq, Scemama skipped being "embedded" and drove into Iraq in a jeep with another Israeli journalist and two Portuguese colleagues. Last week, they were stopped by U.S. troops about 100 miles south of Baghdad, held prisoner for two days as supposed spies, physically abused, and then flown back to Kuwait with Iraqi captives before finally being released. Scemama, subsequently expelled from Kuwait, wrote afterward, "I believe the Americans want to throw out any reporter who isn't umbilically linked to them."
Scemama was hardly alone in his criticism. Three days into the war, Channel Two reported that among the war reporters, the Americans are "obedient" while the Brits ask tough questions at briefings and use derisive terms for their U.S. colleagues. The next morning, Israel Radio's Washington correspondent, Yaron Dekel, complained that the U.S. media provides lots of pictures but little info. By that night, Israeli news programs were airing extensive footage of the POWs -- and noting that the American media had acceded to the Pentagon's request not to show it. The meaning, at least as I heard it, was that the U.S. administration and press were still protecting Americans from the most basic fact of war, the one that every Israeli parent thinks of each time a son has a birthday and is one year closer to draft age. Meanwhile, Israeli broadcasters were dismissing as "psychological warfare" the American claims that Saddam Hussein was killed in the first attack and that his TV appearances were faked.
But criticism sometimes also laid into the heart of American strategy. Guy Bechor, an Arab-affairs expert from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said on a talk show that the Americans planned the war without understanding that Iraq's Sunni Muslims are tied to Hussein and are scared of what will happen when he's gone. And the Shia? Ofra Banjo of Tel Aviv University wrote that back in World War I, the British also regarded themselves as liberating Iraqis from Ottoman rule. The Iraqis didn't see it that way, though, and the Shia led a revolt against the British. As for eagerly greeting the soldiers bringing democracy, said military historian Amnon Sela on Israel TV, the idea was foolish; the Iraqis have never experienced democracy. With all the money the United States is spending on the war, he suggested, it should have first checked the possibility of simply buying Iraq. (Hmm. Would Hussein have accepted a $74.7 billion golden parachute?)
The war, of course, poses more concrete questions for Israelis: Will we again face missile precipitation, for example, and what would those missiles carry? Hours before the initial American attack on Baghdad, the Israeli army's Home Front Command instructed citizens to take out their government-issue gas masks, pull the plug from the filters, try them on and thenceforth carry them everywhere. It took at most a day before officers in the command began leaking their criticism to the press: The risk was too low to justify the massive expense, postwar, of collecting all the masks, replacing the filters and handing them out again.
So our children trooped off to school with black masks in brown cardboard boxes with plastic shoulder straps. (Adults quickly stopped carrying them, but the schools insisted.) Government officials said the risk hadn't passed. Meanwhile, on the war's fourth day, Dekel reported from Washington that the United States had yet to find Scud missiles or chemical weapons, adding, "For the administration, it's a big problem: Where are the nonconventional weapons?"
At least for the moment, it appears that Israel can't go off high alert until the United States confirms that there's no danger of missiles or chemical attack. Yet the Bush administration would be unhappy confirming that -- because then where are all those very bad things that made war necessary in the first place? My kids, therefore, will be carrying gas masks to school again tomorrow. The irony is that if the Iraqis throw very bad things during the battle for Baghdad -- at U.S. troops or at Israel -- there will be secret sighs of relief somewhere in Washington.
As the coalition forces started admitting casualties, Scemama made one of his last reports before being ejected from Iraq. "Speaking from the Israeli viewpoint of having experienced wars that started easy and got complicated," he noted, "it appears to me that this won't be so easy." Lebanon, again. In that war, Israeli columns that enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in numbers, technology and training took a week to reach the outskirts of Beirut. Then they settled into a long siege of the capital, while the death toll mounted on both sides and international outrage grew. In the south, Shia Muslims eventually took up arms against the occupiers, with Iran's support.
The parallel, of course, isn't complete. Israel didn't face weather problems in Lebanon. The United States began its offensive on the eve of an Iraqi summer that could be as agonizing as the Russian winter was for Napoleon. Nor was the supply line to Beirut anywhere near as long as the road to Baghdad.
Still, for Israelis who remember the funerals of the horrible summer of 1982, it's striking to hear Americans switch from "shock and awe" to saying that the war will last months. The parallel could be coincidence; the Iraqi army could crumble tomorrow. Then again, those who don't take the trouble to learn other people's history seem very ready to repeat it.
Gershom Gorenberg is a Prospect senior correspondent.