Some two and a half months have passed since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government was sworn in, following its election victory on a ticket to withdraw from most of the West Bank and change Israel's social agenda. During this time, fragile cease-fires with Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north have collapsed, and Israel is now caught up in the very nightmare it tried to avoid in the six years of the Palestinian uprising; namely, a war on two fronts - exactly like what happened to U.S. President George Bush after the September 11 attacks.
What happened here? Did the extremist Islamic organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah, decide to goad the inexperienced leaders who came to power in Israel, and to test their ability to make decisions under fire? Perhaps Hassan Nasrallah, Khaled Meshal and their cohorts were simply intoxicated by the feeling that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis was getting stronger, while Israel, the United States, the U.K. and France were slipping?
Or is Israel also partially responsible for the crisis due to its siege on the Hamas government and Olmert's refusal to discuss a prisoner swap?
These questions will certainly be discussed in the coming days. On Wednesday, however, the government stood united behind Olmert's decision to respond with force to Hezbollah's provocation.
Unlike former prime minister Ehud Barak, who decided not to respond to the October 2000 Har Dov kidnappings, Olmert wants a new deterrence balance in the north.
The previous kidnappings took place in the early days of the intifada, with Israel panicked by Palestinian violence. Barak preferred not to open a second front and refrained from responding.
Olmert has decided to act differently and fight back, despite Hezbollah's widespread deployment of rockets in southern Lebanon. "Gentlemen," Olmert said yesterday to his ministers, "there are other countries with more substantial and longer-range rockets."
He was alluding to Syria, which Israel has not hesitated to intimidate in the wake of terror attacks. Olmert's working assumption is that Hezbollah will respond to an Israeli attack by launching rockets on northern Israel. Syria, which Israel holds responsible for the Gaza abduction, is outside the warfare equation in the north.
If Hezbollah thought an attack on the Galilee would lessen Israeli military pressure on Gaza, expose cracks inside Israel and show the Olmert government up as weak, it was wrong. Israel tends to unite at times like these. Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz enjoyed complete backing in the cabinet Wednesday. Even ministers who were not satisfied with their management of the crisis in recent week, and thought their renunciation of political restraint was a mistake, choked back their criticism in light of the attack in the north. Olmert and Peretz need only hope that this internal unity survives the pressure of the next few days.
The Israel Defense Forces' return to southern Lebanon, just two weeks after its return to Gaza, will certainly increase doubts in Israel regarding Olmert's unilateral policy. Now, he will have a harder time convincing anyone that it is possible to withdraw from the West Bank without sufficient security arrangements.
Katyushas and Qassam rockets, not demographics, now look like Israel's most pressing threat. Apparently, the international community, on whom Israel relied to deter Syria and Lebanon, and whose support was expected in the struggle against the Palestinians, has trouble coming up with the goods. The world is busy now with other problems. Another Israel-Arab war is the last thing its leaders need.
"I understand the eye-for-an-eye feeling, but it is important to maintain restraint and hope," Olmert heard from his guest, visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumo, on Wednesday.
"Our response will be very restrained," Olmert promised. "But very, very, very painful."
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