Security and Defense: Temporary lull before the storm?

Senior officers couldn't predict how long the truce would last. All chuckled at the notion of six months.

tank idf calm 224.88 (photo credit: )
tank idf calm 224.88
(photo credit: )
When Gilad Schalit was kidnapped two years ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak - then merely a former prime minister with political ambitions - was on the West Coast of the United States on a private business trip. Following one of his meetings, he recalled this week, a reporter stuck a microphone in his face and asked for an explanation for Israel's harsh response to the abduction, in the form of invading Gaza. "You Israelis invented kidnappings," the reporter said to Barak. "You, as a commander in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, kidnapped terrorists; your former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, as a soldier kidnapped Egyptian soldiers; and one of your government ministers, former Mossad operative Rafi Eitan, kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina." Barak recognized the difficulty in the question, but nevertheless tried explaining the difference between Schalit's kidnapping - which was unprovoked - and that of terrorists or Nazi murderers. On Thursday, the day the cease-fire went into effect in Gaza, Barak celebrated his first anniversary at the Defense Ministry, although from Paris, where he had flown the day before to attend the annual defense expo. Wednesday will mark the second anniversary of Schalit's abduction. Less than three weeks later, the country will mark the second anniversary of the Hizbullah abduction of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and the eruption of the Second Lebanon War. From within the pool of diplomatic-security issues that are keeping Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert busy these days - including the Palestinian and Syrian peace talks - the most promising and possibly closest to being resolved is the prisoner negotiations with Hizbullah. This stems from a number of reasons, but mainly the successful German mediation and Hizbullah's determination to reach a deal as soon as possible. Schalit's case is different. Hamas is in no rush to make a swap - especially not now, with the cease-fire underway, according to which the blockade of Gaza will be lifted in the coming days and the crossings will be reopened. This lifeline thrown to Hamas enables it to stand by its demand that 450 Palestinian terrorists be released in exchange for Schalit. Israel has so far only approved 70 prisoners from the list. Despite declarations made by Olmert this week, Schalit's release is not a stage in the truce deal with Hamas. A better description would be that it is "linked" to the process. According to the deal brokered by Egypt, the cease-fire went into effect at 6 a.m. Thursday, with a complete cessation of terrorist activity in Gaza aimed at Israel, and a halt in IDF retaliatory operations. After three days, Israel is expected to slightly ease the blockade on Gaza and open up the crossings to allow in vital humanitarian supplies. If the cease-fire lasts, Israel will further ease restrictions at cargo crossings. In the final stage, negotiator Ofer Dekel will travel to Cairo and begin intensive negotiations with Hamas, via Egypt, for the release of Schalit. Defense officials said it was possible that the negotiations, which have been frozen for several months, would be renewed as early as Sunday. If progress is made, Israel has said it will consider reopening the Rafah border crossing - under EU supervision - between Gaza and Egypt. The best evidence that Schalit is not part of the deal is his father Noam's threat to petition the High Court of Justice against the truce, and the letter he sent Olmert and Barak on Wednesday, urging them not to open the Gaza crossings without the release of his son. On Wednesday, Dekel met with the Goldwasser and Regev families and updated them on the progress in negotiations during his three-day trip to Europe this week. According to defense officials, the deal has been finalized and will be carried out in the coming week. That fits in well with the cease-fire schedule, since Dekel will likely need to head straight down to Cairo to begin prisoner negotiations with Hamas the day after the Lebanese captives return home. IT IS safe to say that everyone in the defense establishment is pessimistic about the chances that the cease-fire will last. After all, Israel and Hamas have both "been there and done that" before. Most recently was a cease-fire declared in November 2006, when 75 rockets were fired during the first month of the so-called cessation. Before that was in February of 2005, when a similar cease-fire was announced, which lasted until June 2006 with the abduction of Schalit. The interim, however, was fraught with rocket attacks and IAF retaliations on Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza. In light of these past experiences, the following conversation between Barak and President Shimon Peres is all the more amusing. The two spoke last week, and Barak was asked by the veteran leader: "Maybe there will be an accident? Maybe this time the cease-fire will actually last?" But senior officers who spoke with The Jerusalem Post this week had difficulty predicting exactly how long the truce would last. One said several days, another a few weeks. All chuckled at the Egyptian claim that it will last six months. THOUGH AT political odds these days, both Barak and Olmert believe that Israel and Hamas are on an ultimate collision course. Both pushed for the cease-fire with Hamas, mainly so as to be able to say - when that collision happens - that they gave their best shot at preventing it, and now it is the IDF's turn to act. Reading the political map, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi understood that, with elections on the horizon, neither Olmert nor Barak would be interested in a major operation that would draw attention away from politics and onto warfare. This is despite objections by other senior officers - particularly in the Southern Command - who believe that the cease-fire is a mistake, and will allow Hamas to create and fortify positions along the border (like Hizbullah did, following Israel's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon) and smuggle in more weaponry. They believe that the IDF had several unspent cards up its sleeve that could have made Hamas pay a heavier price before agreeing to the cease-fire. The last brigade level operation in Gaza was in March, and since then the largest contingents sent into the Strip have been mostly on the company level - rarely on that of an entire battalion. THE SITUATION in Lebanon is dramatically different. Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah wants to establish himself as the new leader of Lebanon, and the release of Samir Kuntar would help him do that. He is also scared of an Israeli proclamation that Regev and Goldwasser are dead, and that negotiations will only be over bodies for bodies. Two years after Goldwasser, Regev and Schalit were kidnapped, all three appeared this week to be closer to coming home than ever before. This is why the cease-fire in Gaza is of critical importance. If it falls apart, so will the negotiations over Schalit. The truce also has an impact on Nasrallah, who doesn't want to be left behind.