The issues facing Israel today are existential, in the most literal sense. It is therefore a matter of grave concern when Israelis who ought to know better offer panaceas that can only bring harm.
As an example of such ill-advised leadership, one might consider Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s decision this week to respond to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s call for a halt to negotiations because of IDF operations in Gaza. In his reply, Olmert uttered not a word about his would-be negotiation partner’s failure to recognize Israel’s right to defend herself or to criticize Hamas’s launching of rockets at the civilian population. Instead, he addressed the imperative for negotiations, as if Israel, and not the Palestinians, most needed a Palestinian state.
“If we don't push the process forward, we'll have to deal with 'Gazafication' in the West Bank - anyone who can't see this is lying to themselves,” Olmert said. “There is no way to prevent the West Bank from turning into a second Gaza Strip without some sort of a political horizon in play.”
How perversely backwards this is. The issue is not a “political horizon,” and it is tiresome having this trotted out as the rationale for proceeding with talks. The Palestinians have known for years what they could have if they were truly interested in peace and compromise. The issue simply is that they have never been truly interested in peace or compromise.
Also relevant to the conflict is the issue of military power. Israel’s defense and security experts report that Hamas is as strong as Fatah in Judea and Samaria, while Abbas’s people are not only ineffective, they also lack the will to challenge Hamas. The only thing preventing Hamas from taking over – and turning Judea and Samaria into Gaza – is the presence of the IDF. Were Israeli forces to withdrawal during a political process, Fatah would cave in in a matter of days and Israel would be facing Hamas on its western front, too. In light of this likely scenario, proceeding with negotiations is the worst thing that Israel might do.
If Israeli leaders recognize the gravity of the situation, they show little evidence of it. Monday evening, Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, held a press conference during which he was asked an eminently fair question: "In light of recent comments by Abbas, will the Israeli government be reviewing the question of whether he is truly moderate?" The questioner had in mind such matters as Abbas’s recent interview in the Jordanian al-Dustur, in which he bragged about his terrorist background and said he would return to it if he thought it would succeed.
Regev declined to address the substance of the question. He replied that Abbas represents Israel’s best alternative for negotiations, implying that Israel must “move ahead” and will take what it can get. But given that Abbas is no moderate, dealing with him will only lead Israel to grief. And because Regev failed to grasp that point, he also failed to acknowledge that there is yet another alternative: admitting that there is no partner among the Palestinians and that negotiations at this point are dangerous.
Only hours after Regev’s press conference, the Tuesday edition of The Jerusalem Post appeared, carrying an opinion piece by one Alex Sinclair, who is associated with the Shalom Hartman Center in Jerusalem. The piece, “International condemnation is good for Israel,” makes a strong case against a ground incursion in Gaza. Says Sinclair, “There is basically no way we can disarm Hamas…or prevent them from gaining access to Kassams and Katyushas, and there is basically no way we can stop them from using them against us when they want.”
If this were true, Israel would already be lost. In truth, Israel can crack down on Hamas’ assault if it is genuinely committed to acting against the terrorists. It’s the fear of acting, the intrusion of political considerations, that prevents this. Look at what happened after the horrendous suicide bombings in 2002. The IDF initiated Operation Defensive Shield, went in with strength, and retained a presence. As a result, today there is effectively no terrorism emanating from the West Bank. The difference between Defensive Shield and the Second Lebanon War (which Sinclair evokes) is that in 2002 we were still sure of ourselves and our purpose and willing to act on our own behalf.
Sinclair’s appeal for a ceasefire is also no solution. This, too, would be a disaster, for it would restrict Israel’s ability to respond while Hamas blithely built its arsenal and trained its army towards the day when it would attack.
Similarly unconvincing is his claim that a Palestinian state in the West Bank would motivate Gazans to moderate their ways. This is a slightly different version of the “political horizon” approach. But what is lacking here is a firm understanding of the power of ideology. The people of Gaza are largely radicalized, constituting a population of so-called refugees maintained in indefinite limbo. They despise Israel, to which they have been told they have a right to return. Destroying the Jewish state is far more important to them than emulating a moderate state in Judea and Samaria.
Lastly, Sinclair claims that we should thank the international community for its outrage because “it leads to our way out.” But if Israel intends to endure, it must understand that there is no way out. No one – not the US nor Abbas nor the UN – is responsible for Israel's survival. That urgent task falls to the Israelis themselves.