Netanyahu Must Not Escalate the Situation in the South

The prime minister must not succumb to seductive calls for a show of power in Gaza; Hamas wasn't behind Thursday's attacks, nor does it seek to increase tensions with Israel.

Reality is cruel. It is cruel for the Americans, who are starting to understand the consequences of toppling Hosni Mubarak this past winter. Reality is also cruel for the Israelis, who started believing that a social framework could replace security in this country. It is cruel for all those who became enamored with the Tahrir revolution - the ones who now understand that that same revolution has caused the peace between Israel and Egypt to crumble. It is cruel for Benjamin Netanyahus rivals, who are witnessing how the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza is effectively crushing the tent protests. It is cruel for Netanyahu himself, who was so proud of a nonexistent death count, and lo and behold, there are now dead to count. Reality is cruel for all of Israelis, as it reminds us where we live, who surrounds us, and what we are up against.

Thursdays coordinated terror attacks are quite similar to the kidnapping of soldiers in northern Israel in July 2006. In both cases, a clever terror attack took Israel by surprise. In both cases, the terrorists breached internationally recognized borders and infringed its sovereignty. In both cases, Israel did not use the intelligence it gathered. In both cases, Israels initial retaliation was direct and decisive, although the response to the retaliation was rocket fire which lead to civilian deaths.

Netanyahu Soroka 19811
Moshe Milner / GPO

Thus, the question that Benjamin Netanyahu now faces is whether or not to continue the campaign in the south, similar to Ehud Olmerts 2006 campaign in Lebanon. Is it necessary to escalate, and escalate, and embroil Israel in a second Gaza war? In the 48 hours following Thursdays attacks, Netanyahu acted firmly. He even properly handled the crisis with Egypt, although Saturday's attack on Beer Sheva may yet change everything.

The prime ministers confidants may try to entice him to implement dangerous plans, and Netanyahu may just fall for it. He seeks revenge, and is powerful enough to get it. He believes in the power of deterrence, and is powerful enough to renew it. If he succeeds, it may lead to the release of Gilad Shalit, which would make Netanyahu the hero of the nation.

But Netanyahu must not succumb to such seduction. Hamas was not behind the attacks on Thursday, nor does it seek to increase tensions with Israel. Therefore, a direct attack on Hamas will be perceived as disproportionate and unjustified. Egypt will not be able to stand aside; this time it will surely call back its ambassador from Tel Aviv and freeze the peace.

The international community will not show restraint; it will present Israel as a war-monger. And when hundreds of rockets from Gaza hit Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beer Sheva, Rehovot, Rishon Letzion and Tel Aviv, the Iron Dome will be deemed ineffectual. Netanyahu will face dilemmas that tore Ehud Olmert apart.

What is needed now is restraint, good judgment and long-term thinking. The first challenge is to stabilize relations with Egypt and stabilize the Sinai Peninsula. Said tasks call for American leadership and creativity. The second challenge is to renew the ceasefire with Hamas. Said task calls for Israeli restraint.

Even if a future confrontation with Gaza is inevitable, Israel must delay it for as long as possible. It cannot act under such sensitive circumstances. If Netanyahu gets into trouble as Olmert did, his fate will be the same as Olmerts. The protests that are happening today in Israel, pre-war, will be nothing compared to the ones post-war.