The welcome cease-fire that is supposed to come into effect Thursday at 6 A.M. can succeed, and it is necessary to give it a real chance instead of looking for disadvantages. Once the decision was made - for which everyone who advanced it must be complimented, especially Defense Minister Ehud Barak - it makes no difference who has gained or lost on points. It is more important to keep the calm, to honor and maintain it.
In an interview with Army Radio yesterday morning, the former commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General (res.) Shmuel Zakai, said he is worried by the skepticism with which the government has greeted the cease-fire. "The next round of fighting with Hamas is not a decree from heaven," Zakai said. The danger is that if we incessantly expect the next war with Hamas, we will not make an effort to maintain the cease-fire, we will be dragged into provocations, and the commander will be quick to pull the trigger. Or, as Zakai put it, "Every company commander will think that it makes no difference whether we fire the next shell now or a year from now."
The aim is to create an atmosphere of restraint, calm and routine in Sderot and the Gaza Strip. Quiet has a dynamic of its own, and if that is what serves the interests of both sides it can last for years. A cease-fire does not mean only a cessation of the shooting, and therefore the simplistic equation that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has articulated in the past - "If they don't shoot then we won't shoot either" - needs fleshing out.
The understandings reached with Egyptian mediation are designed to create a new reality: The opening of the crossings and the transfer of goods between Israel and Gaza - and especially the opening of the Rafah crossing - will allow movement to and from the Gaza Strip, without which the people of Gaza have no life. The agreement taking shape between Fatah and Hamas will perhaps look like a victory for Hamas, but if there is a unified and functioning government, and if the cease-fire holds, this will also constitute an achievement for Israel.
This is a unique agreement because of the massive Egyptian involvement both in achieving it and promising to uphold it. Egypt has made efforts to secure agreements from all the Palestinian factions, even the tiniest and most negligible. Syria, too, supports the cease-fire, and apparently Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), about whose status Israel is concerned, is also prepared to help guard the crossings.
From Israel's perspective, the understandings on quiet that have been achieved via Egypt are just as important as a comprehensive agreement with Abu Mazen alone - which would remain on the shelf. In any case, there is no contradiction between the two.
An exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit is a second, obvious stage, and it should not be abandoned. The prisons are full of Palestinians, among them Hamas parliament members who were arrested as bargaining chips for the release of soldiers. Bringing Shalit home in return for prisoners would not constitute an act of kindness to the Shalit family by the state, but rather a significant contribution to the morale of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, by upholding the norm that soldiers taken prisoner are not abandoned to their fate. It is always more worthwhile to release prisoners in return for a soldier who has been taken captive than to endanger other soldiers in a daring rescue operation that will exact a price in lives.
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