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Once again the talk in Israel is about a military solution to the Gaza problem. According to proponents of force as a cure-all, there is no way to end the violence emanating out of Gaza other than by a full-scale invasion that will eliminate the terrorist threat once and for all.
It is hard to imagine that anyone could believe this. Israel has repeatedly tried to defeat the Palestinians militarily, most notably with the massive invasion of the West Bank in 2002. And, no doubt, the Israeli Defense Forces have met with considerable success, albeit at a heavy cost in lives on both sides. For a time, after a successful strike, calm reigns, more or less.
But then the rebuilding of the weapons arsenal begins. New weapons replace the ones that were destroyed. And new fighters, radicalized by the previous onslaught, fill the ranks of the fallen.
Those who advocate a massive escalation of force to defeat the Palestinian insurgency cite the 1945 Allied victories over Germany and Japan as proof that there is "no alternative to victory." Like FDR and Churchill, their demand is for unconditional surrender.
Those analogies are badly misplaced.
In World War II the enemies were not so much nations as regimes. Eradicating the Nazi regime and the Japanese Imperial Government, would and did, end the war. With those regimes gone, good relations could be built with their successors.
Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is not with a regime but with a people. Virtually all Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank/Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. The minority that rejects the two-state solution opposes any accommodation with Israel at all.
Forget, for a minute, that Fatah and Hamas are two competing factions and recognize that between them they represent 100% of the Palestinian population, or close to it. Fatah is far more moderate but neither faction is going to accept anything less than statehood in the West Bank and Gaza.
To employ an historic analogy to understand what Israel is up against, think of the Algerian revolt against the French. No matter how much force was applied - and France applied far more than Israel ever would - the French could not win.
Viewed in that light, it is absurd to believe that the Palestinian insurrection can be defeated militarily especially when every Palestinian wants to achieve statehood in the territories while only 50% of Israelis want to retain them.
OF COURSE, France would not have been defeated by the Algerians if the French army was fighting for Paris and not Algiers. Although France referred to Algeria as part of Metropolitan France, the soldiers stationed in North Africa knew better.
And Israelis cannot be defeated in a struggle over Israel itself. Those who recall Israel's response to attacks on the north of the country this past summer know that, when it comes to the homeland, Israelis will fight with everything they have. This is not the case with the West Bank/Gaza and the Palestinians know it. For them, it is home but it is a place the 19-year old Israeli soldier would rather not be.
The bottom line is obvious. Israel will not defeat the Palestinians militarily in any struggle over the territories. That is as certain as it is that Israel will not be defeated in any struggle over Israel itself, i.e. the land between Metulla and Eilat.
The good news is that the Israeli government is not committed to unconditional victory but to ending the conflict with the Palestinians through negotiations, and has been since it signed the Oslo agreement of 1993. Despite everything that has occurred over the last six years (since the collapse of negotiations at Camp David), the mutual recognition embodied in that agreement still stands.
The last thing anyone who cares about Israel should want is to return to the bad old days when an Israeli who sat down with a PLO member could be charged with a crime. On the contrary, every Prime Minister since Yitzhak Rabin has negotiated directly with the Palestinians (with Binyamin Netanyahu even picking up the telephone to thank Yasser Arafat for thwarting a major terrorist attack). But a return to the hopeless days of yore is possible if an invasion of Gaza produces the hardening of attitudes that will strengthen Hamas and undermine Mahmoud Abbas. Both Israel and the United States should be doing everything possible to strengthen Abbas and his message of reconciliation with the Israelis; the last thing anyone should be considering is taking any actions that will push the Palestinian people into the arms of the extremists.
THAT IS why Israel's Minister of Justice, Meir Sheetrit, from Ehud Olmert's Kadima party, is now urging the Prime Minister to, according to Yediot Aharonot, "initiate a significant diplomatic process or, specifically, adopt the Saudi peace initiative and launch an immediate dialogue with the Arab countries." Sheetrit was quoted as saying, "If I were the Prime Minister, I would seize this initiative immediately. I would not accept all the Saudis' demands but I would say: let's talk."
Others are suggesting that Olmert offer to fly to the next Arab summit (or one that would be specially convened) to respond in person to the Saudi initiative. As one long time observer told me, "that would electrify the world and change the scene dramatically for the better just as Sadat's visit to Jerusalem did."
The decision is Israel's to make. It can push ahead with an invasion. Or it can pursue the diplomatic option. It is not America's call. However, there can be no doubt which of these alternatives will advance US interests. The last thing America needs is another Arab-Israeli war. It should go without saying that it is also the last thing that Israelis and Palestinians deserve.
The writer is director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum.
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