Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word

Who is calling whose bluff?

own work
own work

Generals play war games. They are all too-aware that war is anything but a game, but the strategies they develop come out of closed rooms where pieces are moved around like 3-D chessmen and what-ifs are puzzles to be solved.

Politicians play poker – with their opponents in government as well as those across borders. Long-term strategy is for those who do not face reelection; poker is for those whose overriding goal is to stay in the game. In other words, while soldiers may use feints and secrecy, politicians turn to bluffing.

The game we are in now: It’s the one I used to play with my son when he was little, when he made up the rules as he went along. But it is also something of an adult game, with successive rounds of surprising dares, deceit, pain and bondage. Just when we think we have understood the rules, a new kink turns up, a new deviant challenge appears on the next card. It’s a role-playing game in which each side has its own rule book, in which “winning” is both a goal and a non-option for both sides.

Sinwar (who has not had to deal with the messy issue of elections in years) is playing the character The Termite. Behold the tunnels he built: the eighth wonder of the world, longer and deeper than the London Tube, with special features designed just for this game. Like the chutes in the children’s game Snakes and Ladders, their opponents might find themselves at any point sliding down a tunnel opening, back to square one. Here’s a cute trick: Pretend you are digging tunnels by hand with trowels and buckets while hidden under the surface you have earth-movers, master welders, pavers, plumbers and electricians, and even tilers for the prison cells you are planning to spring on your opponents at the right time. But, like a termite, his persona is not always aware of facts on the ground, in this case, the ones above his head.

On our side is The Vulture, aka Bluffing Booby. The war was not of his choosing, but he’s perfectly ready to take advantage. His army can swoop down from the air, deliver fatal blows to vermin on the ground. But they must compensate for the fact that they are not particularly equipped for digging up worms or mole rats. If his right hand is waving away accusations that he is mishandling the war, his left is holding his cards so close to his chest, there is not even a peek allowed to the shill standing in the corner. Poker is not a team game, and Bibi is not a team player. He is a consummate bluffer and his personal strategy rests, almost entirely, on his ability to throw misdirection and talk the talk while looking you straight in the eye.

Cards, pawns, a roll of the dice

The hostages are cards; the Gaza refugees are pawns. Sinwar is holding on to his cards, our generals are moving game pieces around the board. For both sides, the pawns are mostly expendable, the hostages worth their full retail value.

Being bluffers ourselves, we suspect new bluffs at every turn. Has Sinwar gone missing, or is it a bluff? Is he speaking through others or has he gone deep underground, or under the border, where no one can find him? Or is this a game in which his hostage cards grant him superhuman powers?

Even without Sinwar, his team is sticking to his bluff: Stop everything, put it all back the way it was and we might play along. His problem: He’s a trickster. No one believes his bluff.

Bibi’s bluff: He’ll stop the hostage negotiations if he doesn’t get what he wants. His problem: His bluff was so transparent, the hostage negotiations continued with barely a break.

Suddenly, both sides are afraid their opponents might be like my son was as a child – ready to declare victory at any moment, when they tire of the game. Our side doesn’t want to approve humanitarian aid in the northern half of Gaza, where people are on the verge of starvation, because it would be handing Hamas a victory. Creating a hostage return situation without officially ending the war might hand Israel a victory. It’s an impasse that occurs when the sides forget the cardinal rule: Both sides fight to win, neither side can win.

War, once it starts, has an internal logic of its own – a set of alternate outcomes that narrows to a point as each side revises its strategy, makes its moves, reveals it cards and tricks, changes positions and delivers measured doses of pain.

But it appears neither leader has read their rule book to the end. Bluffing and tricking were fine for the beginning of the war, but they are just that: smoke screens, secret winks, hiding bad hands dealt from the same set of cards. These cannot get either contestant through to the finals and beyond.

Winning by the rule books both sides have rewritten is impossible. The end of the war will not be checkmate, nor a winner-takes-all final hand. The two sides will not just walk away with a few love bruises, we will have broken bones and festering stab wounds.

The thing is, both Sinwar and Netanyahu are losing their relevance. No on knows if Sinwar is alive or dead. No matter. It turns out his precious hostages are now game tokens being traded in a side hustle, in which a roll of the dice might determine who will be released on either side of the border. Bibi makes a unilateral decision without telling his coalition partners: It’s the act of a man desperate to keep from revealing his cards. He tried to stop the side gamble and it continued without him.

They are both, ultimately, losers. I just hope the rest of us can avoid going down with them.

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.
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