Israel's policy in the conflict with the Palestinians can be summed up in 10 words: What doesn't work with force will work with more force. At the beginning of the year, there was still belief at the top of the security and political echelons that the decision would be made otherwise, in the wake of the American assault on Iraq or an upheaval in the Palestinian leadership. But those hopes were dashed and Israel is back to its old belief that military force will defeat the Arabs.
For three years, Israel has been seeking - without finding - the pressure point that will break the Palestinians, and force them to surrender and give up their national ambitions. The results have been meager. Terror goes on, and no way has been found yet to deter suicide terrorists and those who send them, or to force the Palestinian Authority to "fight the terrorist infrastructures." The public is told to hold tight, to absorb the shocking attacks and economic suffocation, and to wait for the other side to blink first.
Leading the escalation is Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has become the dominant minister in the government, the prime initiator and lobbyist for the security and political moves. The objective of his war is to persuade the Palestinians that Israel will not bend under terror. If they show signs of dealing with the terror infrastructure, Israel will respond with dialogue based on the road map and the Bush vision; but until then, Israel will rely on force to deal with terror.
In close cooperation with Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, Mofaz has broadened the combat envelope. It began with the assassination operations against Hamas leaders, continued with the demand to expel or kill Arafat, then the decision about the zigzagging fence and enclaves in the West Bank, and, most recently, the bombing of the terrorist base in Syria. The prime minister, who avoids any initiative of his own, is an enthusiastic supporter of defense establishment proposals and makes sure there is American support. The government is very weak when it comes up with other policy alternatives, except perhaps for Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who calls for all-out war. Non-violent solutions are not even raised, let alone discussed.
The army offers the soothing statement that it is not seeking an escalation. Before the Syria bombing, it made sure the camp was empty and it only aimed at four buildings. Once again, there was talk about "a change in the rules" and "sending a message." But what if the Arabs don't get the message once again?
The experience of the current conflict is worrying. The escalation in the territories began with bombing empty Palestinian Authority buildings to pressure Arafat, and led to serial assassinations and the reoccupation of the West Bank. All those recipes failed to eradicate terror, just as the other inventions that have since been shelved, like expelling the families of suicide bombers to Gaza.
The announcements about artillery deployed on the northern border, the call-ups of reservists for the territories and "close examination of cars with yellow license plates" are an expression of frustration and improvisation, more than of a serious policy.
What will Mofaz and Ya'alon do if the Syrians continue to host Hamas and Islamic Jihad? The threats (meanwhile denied) to topple the Damascus regime are not convincing. And even if Bashar Assad is replaced, it is difficult to assume that his replacement will give up the demand to return the Golan Heights or the support for the Palestinian struggle.
The defense establishment takes pride in the fact that "the Americans are doing the same as we are," as justification for every use of force. But the Americans also shoot into the air against terror and don't hit, as the entanglement in Iraq proves. The Kay report, by the man who looked for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and didn't find any, shows that sanctions, international inspections and pinpoint bombing were effective in preventing Saddam from rearming, while the occupation and toppling the regime in Baghdad are creating new problems of terror and lack of control.
Using force is not always the best approach, and it is important that this lesson be learned in Israel, ahead of the next round of escalation.
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