An experiment in Israeli lives

Premature gestures, besides risking Israeli lives, also greatly reduce the incentive for Abbas to act.

terror attack 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
terror attack 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Yesterday, the cabinet approved a package of measures for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take to the summit in Egypt today with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. The main item is the gradual release of Palestinian tax revenues held in escrow by Israel, once Abbas's new government is deemed to have met the Quartet's three conditions for receiving direct assistance. Olmert is also expected to arrive at the meeting ready to discuss the lifting of IDF roadblocks in Judea and Samaria. As Olmert said yesterday to the cabinet, "We need to take risks, even though it's not fun, otherwise we will be in a vicious circle [of no movement]... We're strong enough to take gradual risks." The word "gradual" has a reassuring ring, as if Israeli concessions will be linked to Palestinian behavior. Officials will no doubt claim that the process can be stopped at any time if it turns out that our confidence in Palestinian actions has been misplaced. But what does this approach - a road we have traveled down many times before - really mean? It assumes that Israel must risk the lives of its citizens for the dim hope that this time, the risk will pay off, rather than blow up in our faces. "Risk" is really too nice a word for this strategy. It implies that there is a decent chance of success. In fact, the odds are the opposite: We know from years of bitter experience that lifting roadblocks, let alone reducing IDF actions, will produce the near-certain result of lethal terrorist attacks on Israelis. The IDF is reportedly objecting to these steps. Though it has been reported with some fanfare that Abbas is cracking down on Fatah's terrorist arm, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, our information is that so far, any move in this direction has been cosmetic. There is no evidence that Fatah's battle with Hamas will translate into serious action to prevent terrorism. Hamas has already shown a penchant for stepping up missile attacks against Israel precisely when it is battling Fatah, in an attempt to distract attention from this infighting. Fatah, for its part, has claimed, among other excuses, that its poor showing against Hamas was a result of being preoccupied with fighting Israel - a claim that does not augur well for the prospects of relying on Fatah to fight terrorism against Israel. But shouldn't Israel remain open to the possibility that an important corner has been turned and all this will now change? The answer is yes, but not by risking Israeli lives; rather, by being forthcoming in response to actual changes in Palestinian behavior. If Abbas is willing and able to direct his security forces to take concerted action to prevent terrorist attacks against Israelis, it will be obvious to our security services. Israeli military actions, after all, are not taken in a vacuum, but in response to specific intelligence concerning terrorist activity. Roadblocks and checkpoints, even if they are more static measures, are also directly linked to the need to prevent deadly drive-by shootings and the transport of explosives for the suicide bombings that have already taken many Israeli lives. If Abbas is taking action against terrorism, there will be no reason for the IDF not to reduce its presence in the West Bank substantially. But it is unacceptable for the Palestinians to demand, let alone for Olmert to offer, that Israel let its guard down first and see what happens. This would amount to experimenting with Israeli lives. It is the Palestinians who have been attacking Israel. Even "offensive" Israeli action against terrorists is essentially defensive in nature, since its sole purpose is to prevent terrorism. Experience indicates that when Israel stops defending itself, terrorism increases. The Palestinians, by contrast, have everything to gain from ending attacks. The Israeli government's enthusiasm to embrace Abbas prior to any demonstrated change only accentuates the obvious: If Abbas takes real action to stop terrorism, Israel will be able to reduce its defensive measures in ways that would improve the Palestinian situation. Premature gestures, besides risking Israeli lives, also greatly reduce the incentive for Abbas to act. Indeed, Abbas needs Israeli conditionality to justify taking action. The standard Abbas justification for opposing terrorism is, unfortunately, not moral but pragmatic: on the grounds that terror is not in the Palestinian interest. Putting the cart of security concessions before the horse of a Palestinian crackdown against terrorism endangers Israelis, deprives Abbas of his main reason to act, and thereby endangers the chances, however slim, of moving forward.