Background / The Army Would Rather Grit Its Teeth Than Stamp Its Feet

Yesterday's dead won't be the last in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor are they likely to appear on the list of the last 100 victims.

Yesterday's dead won't be the last in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor are they likely to appear on the list of the last 100 victims. Between the Hebrew University bombing and yesterday's bus bombing, a senior officer said that if he were promised that there would be only another 100 victims and then peace would come, he'd sign onto the deal.

The much bleaker outlook is that it will take years - or at least two or three - of more of the current level of fighting, and that as many Israeli casualties as the past year will likely fall victim. The numbers are chilling: From September 2000 to August 1 of 2001, 136 Israeli civilians (and foreigners) and soldiers were killed. From August 1 last year to this year another 467 were killed, making a total of 603 victims.

But despite that assessment, the IDF, backed by the prime minister, wants to remain as long as possible in a waiting mode - not like in the waiting days before the Six-Day War, when then major general Ariel Sharon was one of the officers pressing the government to open fire, but waiting for the developments that will help reduce Palestinian violence with a minimal Israeli involvement.

Sharon, one of the pioneers of Israel's retaliation policies, which believed in immediate, costly and escalated responses to Arab attacks, now wants to adopt precisely the opposite approach - restraint in the face of provocations meant to make Israel bleed and strike back. Restraint will preserve Israel's achievements, giving up restraint will waste those. Of course, a series of "terrible and horrifying" attacks could send the documents and slide show presentations back to the desk drawers, forcing Israel, not to its benefit, to undertake a third attack much more difficult and dangerous than the previous two, Operation Defensive Shield and Operation Determined Path.

The IDF's working plan, as presented last week to Sharon, is diametrically opposed to the expectations of the simplistic critics from left and right that are fueled by high octane emotions between radio report to TV broadcast. The IDF, with the political echelon's approval, is not stamping its feet demanding to leap into action to beat up the Palestinians. On the contrary. The goal now is to avoid escalation in the weeks and months ahead, waiting for local and regional developments that will have far-reaching implications.

Three of those developments, on their own and combined into one, are revolutionary: The coming American offensive against Saddam Hussein; the rise of a Palestinian leadership that will depart from Arafat's hardline approach; and the completion of "The Other Road" - the 11-kilometer fence and obstacle course dividing the north and center of the West Bank from Israel proper.

The plan was worked out over the past few weeks at the general staff level. It was derived from intelligence estimates, drafted in the planning department and takes into account the missions and resources of the operations department - how many troops and billions of shekels will be needed to meet the expected challenges.

The plan was discussed at the general staff level and was brought to the political echelon with the blessings of Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. More than anything it represents the staff work orchestrated by two brigadier generals: head of the strategic planning department Eibal Giladi and head of research in Military Intelligence, Yossi Kuperwasser. Its weak point is in two areas out of the army's control: The Israeli public's forbearance and the terrorist organizations' survival.

According to the general assessment prepared by operations, the IDF has to prepare for fighting on three fronts: Palestinian, in the north, and on the Iraqi side - at either the current level or more intensively.

That's what the army's fighting force is preparing for, but the basic working assumption in the strategic plan is that the general tendency, the spirit of the times, is working in Israel's favor, and against Arafat.

Therefore, Israel has to grit its teeth, even in the face of painful attacks, and keep the fighting at its current level, if not lower. It would not be to Israel's benefit to break the pattern, neither with a military operation to reconquer the entire West Bank and Gaza, at the cost of thousands of Palestinian casualties and loss of world support for Israel, nor in a major confrontation with Damascus and Hezbollah.

By the spring of 2003, says this plan, Saddam Hussein will be gone, Arafat will be sidelined to a ceremonial role without much influence - much like Shimon Peres - and the residents of Tul Karm and Qalqilyah will wake up to a view of the wall, not the Mediterranean. That wall will mark the end of Arab expansion westward - and Israeli expansion eastward - and its psychological importance will have ramifications far more important for both sides than its practical purposes.

The operative question, therefore, is how to get through the coming six months with a "tolerable" level of terror. That's a vague concept, which does not lend itself easily to measurement, and it changes - what was considered two years ago to be intolerable and necessarily requiring an escalation, mortars flying out of Gaza, for example, are now nearly routine.

The answer, therefore, is in the hands of the Israeli public, as understood by the ministers and parties trying to assess the public's mood. The politicians' worries about their survival if they don't order a "mega-response" could force the collapse of the strategic calculation.

Precisely because escalation does not serve Israel, it's exactly what Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the extremists in the Tanzim want. "The race," says one general, "is between the rate at which we destroy terror cells and the speed with which they propagate."

Both sides meanwhile suffer from a lack of resources. The terrorists lack material and freedom of movement, while the IDF doesn't have enough forces. The Nablus operation of recent days was postponed several times due to lack of manpower. So, the army calls up troops, prevents terror, releases reserves, people get killed, and reserves are called up again - it's the same old chain of events expected for the coming year, during which the minority of Israeli adult men who serve in reserve combat units will spend 37 days in uniform.

In the meantime, the fence will be completed - or so the general staff promises - by May 2003, along its current route, which is not exactly on the Green Line, and will probably be widened in the Gilboa, Latrun and Jerusalem areas. But it will extend practically the entire length of the seam area, except for in the south Hebron area, where the topography doesn't require a fence to hunt down an infiltrator.

The general staff is pleased with its restraint in the north. Hezbollah tried to provoke Israel in April, during Operation Defensive Shield, but the army and political echelon held back. "They behaved like savages and were declared the neighborhood bullies," said one general. "It turns out Iran and Hezbollah also have constraints, both domestically in Lebanon and internationally."

Those restraints have kept Hezbollah quiet (other than inconsequential anti-aircraft fire at passing planes). The American assault on Iraq might change that, though not necessarily. In any case, there are at least two very high ranking generals who are prepared to bet each other's money that President Bush will order action against Saddam Hussein before September 11.