Analysis: Rationale behind restraint

At this time last year, during the emotionally-charged run-up to the Gaza disengagement, prime minister Ariel Sharon and his spokesmen were saying that once out, Israel could act with relative impunity and international understanding against any terrorist attacks emanating from the Strip. Foreign diplomats made it clear that they didn't necessarily accept this position, but, nevertheless, it was one that Sharon and his spokesmen used quite often. The logic was simple: Having withdrawn every last soldier and settler, there would be no more "justification" for attacks. The world would therefore understand if Israel used great force against any Gaza-based attacks against it. That was last year. Now, however, the rockets are raining down on Sderot, making normal life impossible, yet many Israelis are asking themselves what exactly it will take for the government to act on its threats to use all means at its disposal to combat the Kassams and protect its citizens. Or, to use the vernacular, what would it take for Israel to "really stick it to the Palestinians." One thing it will likely take, according to one senior diplomatic official, is more time. "If I you want to pound Gaza or go back in there, you have to do so with legitimacy and support," he said. "The world has to understand that you have exhausted all other options." The world, according to this view, has to see that there is no alternative to fierce military measures because an intolerable situation has been created. Perhaps as a prelude to this point in time, as an attempt to prepare the world to the inevitability of stiffer military measures, the Government Press Office put together a tour of Sderot and the Western Negev for foreign journalists on Tuesday, obviously with the hope this will give them a picture of what Israel is currently facing. By restraining a military reportedly chomping on the bit for more forceful action, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, according to government officials, is trying to create an international atmosphere that may eventually tolerate such a move. In this argument, Israel is simply waiting for the right time, and by waiting a few days and letting the world see what it faces, it will gain tactical advantage. Another explanation for the restraint is that Jerusalem simply does not want to play into Hamas's hands. According to this reasoning, Hamas - fearful of a referendum on the prisoners document calling for the Palestinians to accept a state along the pre-1967 lines - wants to ensure that this referendum is not held. One way to do this would be to provoke an IDF action that would rally all the Palestinians around the flag, scuttling the referendum. A wide-scale offensive, or even the targeted killings of Hamas heads, would be tantamount to an all out war, something Peretz seems keen on avoiding now, if only to see how the internal forces that have been put into motion inside the Palestinian Authority play themselves out.