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At the height of the first Lebanon War, the government was facing a difficult decision: to send the Israel Defense Forces into Beirut to take out thousands of Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists holed up there, or to allow Philip Habib, president Ronald Reagan's envoy, to do everything possible to clear the city and Lebanon of the PLO by means of an agreement.

Then, like today, many clamored for a large-scale military operation. Defense minister Ariel Sharon asked the cabinet sardonically whether anyone still believed that Habib would get the PLO out of Beirut. Prime minister Menachem Begin, supported by moderate ministers, decided to wait and give every chance to diplomatic moves.

By his decision, Begin saved the lives of dozens of IDF soldiers, if not more, and saved Israel from a disastrous entanglement. The unbelievable did happen: Habib attained an agreement, and the PLO forces, with Yasser Arafat at their head, left Beirut by sea and were sent to Tunis.

The cabinet did not decide Wednesday not to decide, as its critics claim. It decided to do anything, down to the last flicker of hope, to explore every possibility, every chance, even the slimmest, of a diplomatic solution, no matter how faltering, to bring an end to the firing of Qassam rockets and mortars on the South before embarking on a major military operation. In so doing the government acted responsibly, in the spirit of previous governments that soldiers are not sent into battle without our secret weapon: the belief that there is no choice.

It is doubtful calm will be attained; it is even more doubtful that it will hold. But precisely for these reasons this attempt must be played out.

Any cease-fire agreement is an Israeli victory, because Israel did not start shooting and has no interest in doing so. Israel left Gaza and seeks nothing there. Hamas is the one that opened fire as part of its war against the state of Israel. It is the siege on Gaza, with the surprising cooperation of Egypt, and the Israel Defense Forces' successful targeted operations that have led Hamas to ask for a cease-fire.

For many months Hamas conditioned the cease-fire in Gaza on a parallel one in Judea and Samaria. Hamas' willingness, for lack of choice, to agree to calm in Gaza only is a prime Israeli achievement. Some argue that Hamas will use the time to its benefit. That is clearly the case. But Israel can also make good use of the time - to move ahead on the development of a defense system against Qassams and various kinds of rockets, to expedite and strengthen reinforcement of communities around Gaza and for diplomatic maneuvers.

There may in the end be no choice but to embark on a major military operation. But as our sages said, do not bring calamity before its time. Israel has never lost out from periods of calm, even brief ones, and Israel also knew how to use such time to its advantage. But before we shoot, we should exhaust every other avenue.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.