An Uneasy Place in the Middle

The syndrome of avoiding making hard decisions has turned into a plague in recent years. Politicians who sit on the fence, with one foot on either side, have become the flavor of the month.

Some politicians, particularly those on the right, recommend bombing the sources of fire in the Gaza Strip. The most extreme demand that we reconquer Gaza and remain there until further notice. Other politicians, mainly on the left, call for calming nerves and renewing the cease-fire. The most extreme recommend beginning direct negotiations with Hamas. But there is one thing that everyone agrees on: The current situation, in which the people are paying the price for the struggle between Israel and Hamas (and for tensions between Hamas and Fatah), cannot continue.

Restraint - or "containment," to use the term preferred by the Winograd Committee that investigated the Second Lebanon War - is not a dirty word. A government can, and sometimes even must, practice restraint and sustain damage, including even fatalities, in the short run. But that is on condition that the leadership knows where it is going in the long run. After the bitter experience of the Second Lebanon War, one would thus have expected the Olmert government to devise a clear strategy for the Palestinian arena - though it was too ambitious to hope that decision-makers would recognize the limits of the Israel Defense Forces' enormous power in dealing with a nonstate army, and therefore seek a diplomatic solution.

The ongoing crisis on the southern front should have taught every thinking Israeli that sitting and doing nothing is not an acceptable option. The Israeli-Palestinian struggle is like a weed: As long as you fail to completely eradicate it, it will continue to spread in every direction and deepen its hold. But sometimes, as was the case with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, doing half a job is worse than doing nothing. Israel's unconditional evacuation of that terrority was viewed by the Palestinians as a decisive victory for the school that advocates violence over the school that advocates dialogue. And it was similarly viewed by many Israelis.

Even though the withdrawal from Gaza was executed without an agreement, the Qassam rockets have become the decisive proof of the failure of Israel's efforts to reach a "land for peace" agreement. Public opinion polls reveal that a sweeping two-thirds majority of Israelis does not believe anything will come of negotiations with the Palestinians. A poll commissioned by Hebrew University's Truman Institute found that almost 60 percent of Israelis oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders, a division of Jerusalem and an agreed solution to the refugee problem. On the other hand, the latest Peace Index poll conducted by Tel Aviv University's Tami Steinmetz Center found that more than 70 percent of citizens favor continuing the negotiations, and almost 60 percent agree that the Palestinians deserve an independent state. Isn't it wonderful to be a centrist?

The syndrome of avoiding making hard decisions has turned into a plague in recent years. Politicians who sit on the fence, with one foot on either side, have become the flavor of the month. It is enough for someone to announce that he favors continuing the talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and to denounce the "hooligans" in Hebron to be viewed as a centrist by everyone.

Just yesterday, Benjamin Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying that when the opposition leader met with Nicolas Sarkozy, he told the French president that he was "in favor of conducting negotiations with the Palestinians." The statement added that Netanyahu said Jerusalem must remain "united under Israeli sovereignty." It is also important for us to know that he told Sarkozy Israel must remain on the Golan Heights. But tomorrow, we will hear that he told somebody else that resuming the negotiations with Syria is very important to him. This is a sign of extreme "centrism."

It is clear that any decision - or, more accurately, any lack of decision - regarding the crisis on the Gaza front, like any statement made to the media about negotiating with the Arabs, is affected these days by electoral considerations. But it is possible that the day after the election, the newly elected American president will force the new Israeli government to get off the fence and abandon the warm, comfortable center.

Meanwhile, what should residents of Sderot do on February 10? They should carefully read the two advertisements that appear every Friday in Haaretz. The right-wing ad informs "the people of Israel" that "the Arabs of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] have no right to a state." The left-wing one demands that the candidates for prime minister "advance Zionism on the basis of the Arab peace initiative."

The Sderot residents should decide which of these two approaches has a better chance of extricating them from their shelters, and which party will adopt it. But the middle of the road is a surefire recipe for a frontal collision.