M.J. Rosenberg
Israel Policy Forum (Opinion)
March 7, 2008 - 6:35pm

This is one of those times when the Israeli-Palestinian situation seems to be in a free fall. Yesterday’s terror attack at a Jerusalem yeshiva followed the Gaza incursion which followed the shelling of Sderot and now Ashkelon. It is becoming hard even to recall the few years, only a decade ago, when Israeli-PLO security cooperation had reduced terror in Israel to virtually zero and Israeli bargain hunters and day trippers flooded the Arab towns of the West Bank every weekend.

And yet here we are.

Israeli leaders clearly do not know what to do about Hamas-run Gaza. Obviously, they cannot permit Hamas and the other extremists to perpetuate a reign of terror on Sderot and beyond (Ashkelon, which some of the rockets are now reaching is a city of 120,000). Obviously, they have to do something. But what?

Fundamentally, Israel has two options, both bad, but one is better than the other. The first is military. The IDF can go into Gaza, as it did last week, and try to take out the terrorists. Last week’s incursion is considered a success (although two Israeli soldiers and over 100 Palestinians, mostly civilians—including children—lost their lives).

But it didn’t solve the problem. The rocket fire can resume at any time and, just going by the law of averages, one of these rockets is going to kill a lot of people. That is, of course, the goal of those who are firing them.

Once that happens, if past patterns are repeated, the Israelis will be forced into a full-scale invasion. This is something on which there is general agreement. If something terrible happens, Israel has to invade Gaza and perhaps re-occupy it.

Of course, if an invasion would solve the problem, Israel should do it now, before a catastrophe takes places. I’ll repeat that: if an invasion of Gaza would end the missile onslaught, the Israelis should not wait until a school or a hospital is blown up but should invade Gaza now.

However, the reason the Israelis have not invaded, and are not invading, will remain just as valid after a catastrophic attack. An invasion will not eliminate the Hamas threat from Gaza, could very well strengthen Hamas and weaken Mahmoud Abbas, and would result in the loss of many Israeli soldiers and innocent Palestinian civilians. It could also lead to the long-term re-occupation of Gaza which nobody in Israel wants.

In other words, the invasion option is a bad one—no matter if it occurs before, during, or after some horrific Hamas attack—because it would not succeed.

Israel’s second option is a cease-fire. There have been cease-fires with Hamas in the past and they have held. More than any other Palestinian group, they have the ability to stop all the violence emanating from areas they control.

The downside of a cease-fire is that Hamas will use the peaceful intermission to build up its ability to fight the next round. Of course, that is also what Hezbollah is doing right now. It is also what Israel does. In fact, in times of war, temporary cease-fires are invariably used by each side to build up its fighting capacity.

On the other hand, during the period of the cease-fire no one is killed, life can return to a semblance of normalcy, and the possibility arises of extending the cease-fire, by way of diplomacy, into something lasting. In this particular case, a cease-fire could make it possible for Olmert and Abbas to make real progress toward establishing a Palestinian state and ending the conflict.

It is often said that even a bad peace is better than a good war. A good cease-fire (i.e., one that holds) is certainly better than no cease-fire, especially when “victory” is unachievable by either side.

Of course, there are all these rules about not dealing with terrorists. But they are mostly hogwash. Israel is dealing with Hamas to achieve the release of Gilad Shalit and it is observing a cease-fire that was negotiated with Hezbollah. As for the United States and its opposition to dealing with terrorists, the so-called surge in Iraq is working, to the extent that it is, because the United States has enlisted some of Iraq’s worst terrorists (some with American blood on their hands) to work for us and with us.

We’ve always dealt with terrorists. I know that, for some reason, we distinguish between terrorists who run countries and those who don’t but the distinction between our World War II ally, mass murderer Joseph Stalin, and the worst terrorist imaginable eludes me. We deal with terrorists when we want to or when we need to. There is no hard and fixed rule and there shouldn’t be.

The most troubling aspect of dealing with Hamas is that it could undercut Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. That is the last thing we want to do. We did Abbas and company quite enough damage by insisting on the elections that brought Hamas to power. Then we did everything we could to sabotage the joint Fatah-Hamas unity government, only making more likely the coup that ended with Hamas taking full control of Gaza.

Any cease-fire that is reached must be tripartite and include Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza. Abbas says he is ready to do that and most Israelis favor such negotiations. According to the latest poll published in Ha’aretz, 64 percent favor direct negotiations with Hamas. Surely an even larger majority would favor indirect negotiations.

Israelis, left and right, are desperate to see the shelling end. Some want an invasion. Some want to negotiate with Hamas. And some would do both, contradictory as that sounds. Anyone who knows Israel understands that if Prime Minister Olmert delivers a cease-fire, accompanied by the release of Gilad Shalit, the overwhelming majority of Israelis will be ecstatic.

Israelis are flexible and practical, far more so than some of their American supporters. Perhaps that is because they actually live there and cannot afford to stand on principles when adhering to them are so obviously self-destructive.

Last night I looked at some of the footage of the teenagers slaughtered at the yeshiva. Then I happened to go over to one of my favorite blogs, Andrew Sullivan’s, and up popped the photo of a ten month old baby killed in his crib during Israel’s incursion into Gaza.

It’s obscene, all of it. Any policy that stops the slaughter on both sides is the right one. It is that simple.


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