A cease-fire named Iran?

The truce with Hamas is a lousy deal. But it’s justified if it facilitates IDF action against Iran.

IDF vehicle along Gaza border fence 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF vehicle along Gaza border fence 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Let’s be blunt: Last week’s cease-fire agreement is a terrible deal for Israel. Yet even so, the government wasn’t necessarily wrong to accept it. The crucial question is whether it caved because it got cold feet, or whether it sensibly sacrificed a lesser gain now for a greater one later.
We’ll start with the deal’s flaws. First, it bars all Israeli operations against Gaza while allowing Gaza to continue attacking Israel. How so? The deal requires Israel to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land, sea and air,” whereas Palestinians must only stop “all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel.” In other words, it doesn’t bar Palestinian attacks on Israel from Sinai, which have become increasingly frequent. But it does bar Israel from preempting such attacks: It can no longer target terrorists inside Gaza, having pledged to stop all attacks there, but it also can’t target them once they cross the border into Sinai, as that would violate its treaty with Egypt.
Second, though all Palestinian groups are supposed to halt attacks, the agreement doesn’t require Hamas to enforce their compliance. Thus Hamas is being allowed to rule Gaza without being held responsible for what happens there. 
Third, the agreement promises that the issue of lifting restrictions on the movement of people and goods to and from Gaza will be “dealt with.” Israel presumably interprets this phrase to mean “discussed.” But Hamas and Egypt may well interpret it as requiring an end to these restrictions – up to and including the naval blockade.  Hence Israel could find itself accused of violating the cease-fire if it balks, which it obviously will. And since most of the world dislikes the blockade to begin with, that accusation will surely garner international support.
Fourth, Israel received no reciprocal promise that its main concern, arms smuggling, will also be “dealt with.” It’s entitled to raise the issue, but there’s no guarantee it will actually be addressed.
Fifth, the deal essentially makes Egypt the referee of violations. But Cairo, whatever it thinks of Hamas’s conduct in private, will never publicly blame anyone but Israel, just as it did during the actual fighting. And with Israel itself having nominated Egypt as referee, much of the world will buy that verdict.
Finally, the deal was clearly premature. As columnist Nadav Shragai aptly wrote, “If the armed Islamist groups, after 1,400 sorties over the Gaza Strip, can still reach Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba, Jerusalem and Rishon Lezion, disrupt our lives and paralyze half the country, then they are far from being defeated.” That calls the deterrent value of the entire operation into question.
Yet for all these flaws, there are potential gains that could justify the deal. One is Washington’s goodwill – a prize Jerusalem was clearly angling for. That’s why it rejected a truce proposal last Tuesday only to accept a virtually identical deal 24 hours later, once US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had arrived to take the credit.  That’s also why both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama issued statements saying that Netanyahu accepted the cease-fire on Obama’s recommendation.
Granted, goodwill is a nebulous asset. But there are two concrete expressions of it that, if forthcoming, would be worth the price Israel paid. The first is US support for a major ground operation in Gaza should the truce break down. Invading with US support would obviously be preferable, and that’s the rationale one senior official cited last week: “Israel gained valuable legitimacy to take further military action in the future if necessary.”
The second is US support for attacking Iran’s nuclear program, should Israel decide to do so. Israel will need America’s help in handling the diplomatic fallout from such a strike, and Washington will also be critical to ensuring that sanctions remain in place to prevent Iran from rebuilding its program.
Yet both these benefits could easily prove chimerical. On Iran, Washington has repeatedly made its opposition to Israeli military action clear, and it’s hard to see it reversing itself on an issue this major (it thinks an attack on Iran would be “incredibly destabilizing”) in exchange for Israeli concessions on a comparatively minor issue like Gaza.
Future support for tougher action on Gaza is more plausible, but only if Hamas were stupid enough to commit massive cease-fire violations immediately – which it isn’t. Almost certainly, Hamas will do just what it did after the last war, in 2009: re-escalate slowly and cautiously to avoid major retaliation before it has rebuilt its arsenal. First, it will let smaller organizations launch very occasional short-range rockets, knowing Israel won’t go to war over that. Then it will pick up the pace, but slowly enough that the increase never seems to justify war – to the world, or even to most Israelis: We’re invading Gaza because rocket launches have risen from an average of six per week to eight? Or because of a larger barrage that ended two days later?
By the time Israel simply can’t ignore the escalation any longer, there might well be new governments in both Washington and Jerusalem. And presidential promises, as Obama himself taught us, aren’t always honored by new administrations.
Still, even if neither of these benefits materializes, there’s another factor that could justify the agreement: With Iran’s nuclear program fast approaching crisis point, Israel simply can’t afford to have either the IDF or the world distracted by a long-term ground operation in Gaza. And as I wrote last week, a mere in-and-out operation would be pointless.
Netanyahu clearly hinted at this consideration last week, saying, “We have more important and less important enemies; we deal with them in order of importance.” A Likud MK close to him was even more explicit, saying this was the wrong moment for a long-term ground operation because “important decisions await us in the spring.”
If Israel does attack Iran this spring or summer – or if it eventually launches a ground operation in Gaza with full US backing – then the cease-fire will be justified. But if not, the government’s failure to deal with the rocket fire once and for all will retroactively prove inexcusable.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.