Not 16 months have elapsed since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was enticed to deal Hezbollah a crushing blow and teach it a lesson it would never forget. Now he is about to fall into the same trap. In August 2006 he accepted the chief of staff's recommendation to launch a ground attack in southern Lebanon that would leave no doubt as to who won the war. Today he seems ready to adopt the army's approach to reject Hamas' proposals for a cease-fire.
As in the Second Lebanon War, so too with the conflict in the Gaza Strip, considerations of image and psychology carry great weight in the prime minister's decisions. Now too he might find that an exaggerated sense of power and tough-guy arrogance have led him to make a bad decision that takes its toll.
In matters of state involving life-and-death issues, decisions are never simple. A lack of certainty is built into them and the cost of failure is high. Olmert is being hit by two opposing forces: If he responds to Hamas' signals that things are calming down, he might come out looking like a patsy who allowed the enemy to lead him by the nose. If he rejects them, he might be responsible for escalating the violence.
He is not to be envied. It is clear that the assuaging messages from the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, do not result from an ideological change of heart toward Israel, but rather military, economic and diplomatic pressure by Israel.
Everyone also understands that Hamas' willingness for a cease-fire is temporary and designed to allow it and Islamic Jihad to gather their strength for the moment they renew hostilities under more favorable conditions. In any case, a sober reading of the situation does not necessarily mean Hamas' overtures should be rejected. It certainly does not justify the voices from the political right claiming that diplomacy and concessions should be avoided because the blow to defeat the enemy forever is about to land.
The idea that the Israeli leadership's nonviolent steps have prevented the ultimate military victory has been heard more than once in the conflict with the Palestinians. The right claimed that the Oslo Accords could not have been signed at a worse time - a moment before the Palestinians were defeated. When then prime minister Ehud Barak concluded the negotiations with Yasser Arafat at Camp David, this argument was used again.
This was also the case when Ariel Sharon implemented the disengagement plan in Gaza. It happened once more during the intifada, when Israel's governments yielded to U.S. pressure and Palestinian appeals to agree to cease-fires. More than once the government was accused of not letting the Israel Defense Forces win.
The fable about a stab in the back is told in countries that have been enmeshed in long wars. When they suffer military defeat, myths develop that politicians or civilians prevented victory. Something of this has taken place in Israel over the past 15 years, and has been seen recently in the response to Hamas and Islamic Jihad's perceived weakness. The IDF and Shin Bet security service's pinpoint operations instill the illusion that total victory is just around the corner. These are false hopes. The conflict with the Palestinians will not be decided on the battlefield. No crushing blow will end it, but rather a diplomatic agreement. This brings the discussion back to the dilemma Olmert now faces.
The way to decide between opposite considerations - whether to respond to a cease-fire proposal in Gaza or escalate military strikes - is to derive the decision from the desired goal. Olmert and his ministers must decide where they want to take the country in the conflict with the Palestinians. To a permanent status agreement? To the status quo? To a military resolution? If they only clarify their goal, they will know how to answer Ismail Haniyeh.
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