An overdue reawakening

Israel goaded its enemies to provoke it because they ceased believing that Israel would agree to pay the price of using force.

The individual most responsible for the Israel Defense Forces operation in Gaza is unaware of its existence. In another week we will mark three years to the night in which Ariel Sharon fell into a coma. Three years languishing in the dark corridor between life and death, while Israel continues to pay the price for his miscues: the evacuation of the IDF from the Philadelphi route and all controlling points in the Gaza Strip - in contrast to the justified removal of the settlements - as well as yielding to American pressure to allow Hamas to take part in elections for the Palestinian Authority in January 2006.

In recent years, Israel has become an object that has been trampled on. The tales of valor and trickery, determination and efficiency have evaporated. Irritants in the form of Hezbollah and Hamas, who have succeeded in pricking it, are nurturing a new generation of Arab youth who believe it is possible to crumble Israel from within while cutting it down to size from without.

"Restraint is power," Sharon once said sanctimoniously. As an officer and politician, all the way up to his ascendancy to the premiership, Sharon never grew tired of employing force and did not know the meaning of restraint. In practice, the only ones capable of showing restraint are those afraid of what is likely to happen if they stop showing restraint. This is the paradox of might: There is an inverse correlation between the willingness to use military force and the need to use it. The more the state convinces its adversaries of its readiness to fight, the greater the chances that it will not have to translate this readiness into action. In a long process, one filled with unnecessary entanglements and desperate efforts to extricate oneself from them, Israel goaded its enemies to provoke it because they ceased believing that Israel would agree to pay the price of using force.

In the Israel-Palestine relationship, the paradox of might meets the paradox of moderation. The extremist minority, though its goals and its means, is likely to emerge stronger than the moderate majority because those who suffice with moderate goals also tend to prefer the use of moderate means, including means against the extremists. This is not necessarily the case when dealing with domestic power struggles, because in that instance the goals of both combatants are absolute and, accordingly, so are the means. But if Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are thought of as (relatively) moderate toward Israel, one cannot expect them to act with force against Hamas. As long as they and others of their ilk are deterred from doing so, Israel will be compelled to stand against the extremists.

Israel's security doctrine, as sketched by David Ben-Gurion, is geared toward moderate objectives for which Israel is willing to employ extreme means to attain in the spirit of the paradox of might the '49-'67 borders, which are contingent on an aerial and armored force, and the latent deterrence in Dimona. This past generation, the tables have turned: The objectives have become extreme (settlements, retaining the Golan Heights) but the means have dissipated. Sharon was no longer in a position of influence when his junior partner to those same errors, Ehud Olmert, compounded the mistake of a military withdrawal with the sin of a lax policy in employing force against the attacks by Hamas and the smaller factions operating in the Gaza Strip.

That same weakness made it easier to execute the abduction of Gilad Shalit from his tank at the Kerem Shalom posting two and a half years ago, and it encouraged Hamas to flirt with constant provocation of Israel. It is this threshold that the IDF bombed over the past two days, in the hope that out of the smoke and fire both sides will establish a more stable coexistence. Hamas will continue to rule and grow stronger, but this time with a hand on the safety catch, not the trigger.

Sharon and Olmert fomented the worst of all worlds. The exit from Gaza did not absolve Israel of legal responsibility for the fate of the occupied territory, but Hamas was permitted to participate in elections while it continued to work toward its stated goal of destroying Israel (while it would not have been allowed to participate in Knesset elections). These decisions borne of naivete encouraged Hamas to adhere to its rebellious stance.

Alongside the repeated diplomatic failures, there was also a continuing security failure to which every prime minister, defense minister, finance minister and chief of staff is an accomplice - Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Ya'alon included - as well as the research and development heads in the defense establishment in the last eight years. None of them gave preference or sufficient emergency resources to intercepting rockets and combating weapons-smuggling tunnels. This is what is usually done by intelligence and elite units (and in the Pentagon in searching for methods and equipment used to combat roadside bombs in Iraq).

Two days after the Knesset elections, Ehud Barak will celebrate his 67th birthday, having considerably sobered up from his youthful capriciousness. As a young general, he offered suggestions to then-defense minister Ariel Sharon on how to more efficiently wage - not prevent - the war Israel initiated in Lebanon. In fact, now Barak seeks to renew Ben-Gurion's forgotten doctrine of the use of force in service of moderate goals: reaching an arrangement that will be implemented and defended. The national awakening from the coma is justified, even if it is belated.