Analysis: Gambling on restraint

Emerging Livini-Olmert alliance is insisting on sticking to the cease-fire - at all costs.

Kassam is jihad  298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Kassam is jihad 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
"The cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza appears to be holding even after militants fired rockets into Israeli territory." This was how the BBC's Radio Four described the situation around the Gaza Strip a couple of weeks ago; in other words, the new definition of a cease-fire is one in which the Palestinians continue firing Kassams while the IDF holds its fire. This quote was originally noted by Charles Moore in The Spectator magazine, but while he used it to pillory the BBC, it is now obvious that it is also the way that the Israeli leadership understands the cease-fire. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with the backing of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who in recent months has been receiving a much wider place in the national decision-making process, has decided - despite the opposition of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, most of the other ministers and the IDF's high command - that Israel can afford to absorb two or three Kassams a day falling in the western Negev, in return for a general feeling of relative calm and a favorable international climate. Olmert's calculation is that the firings are mainly haphazard, with little chance of hitting a civilian target and causing major damage. Most of the rockets on Thursday fell within the Palestinian territory, and at this stage, it is better to keep the IDF on a leash. He's being helped also by the mainstream press which has been content over the last few weeks to relegate the Kassams to the back pages; Benny Sela and the murder of Tair Rada are sexier stories. The feeling among Israel's diplomatic corps is that this is a period of grace for the country. The major enemies - Syria, Hizbullah and Iran - are beginning to suffer from international isolation and all that the world is currently demanding of Israel is that it lends Abu Mazen a helping hand. The argument is that the Kassams are being fired by Islamic Jihad and other groups opposed to the Palestinian president and retaliating with a large-scale attack will just be playing into their hands. Israel apparently has more to gain by staying put. Much better not to cause any new problems for George Bush, who is busy right now burying the Baker-Hamilton report's recommendations and gearing up for the US's last big push in Iraq. If we manage to keep our backyard quiet, there's also a chance that the powers-that-be will finally get serious about the Iranian nuclear program. All this seems to make perfect realpolitik sense, especially since the IDF hasn't achieved that great a track record in dealing with the Kassam threat, even when it was allowed to roam and fire at will. Every resource was used - manned and unmanned aircraft, artillery, tanks and special forces, backed up by every available intelligence asset. Hundreds of terrorists were killed, but the firings didn't stop and Israel's image suffered when the international media preferred to focus on civilians killed in Beit Hanun rather than on the people of Sderot living under constant bombardment. The only problem is that we tried this policy before and it blew up in our faces. Ten months of restraint around Gaza ended with the capture of Gilad Shalit in June. Two weeks later, six years of ostensible calm on the Lebanese border were ended abruptly by the Hizbullah attack at Zarit, the death of eight soldiers, the abduction of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser to an as yet unknown fate and the rest of the summer's disasters. Not retaliating might create the illusion of quiet for the majority of the local population and a few temporary points in the diplomatic arena, but in the rough neighborhood we live in, it's merely interpreted as a sign of weakness. The Kassams might be mainly a demonstration of opposition to Abu Mazen's weak attempts to establish control, but the longer they're allowed to get away with it, others are going to take advantage and join in. The more Israel tries to deal with the Kassams by putting pressure on Abu Mazen, the more his rivals will be determined to prove that no one can order them around. Olmert and Livni are gambling. For the last four weeks, the 40 Kassams falling in open spaces have been tolerable pinpricks, but once again Israel has lost the initiative against the terrorists. All it will take is one Kassam to find a target, causing tragic casualties and there will be no choice but to retaliate with force. Then we'll be back to square one again. No one will give us any credit for a month of restraint.