History Suggests Restraint

The considerations and spirit of mutual restraint that guided Israel and Egypt's leaders in several incidents since the signing of the peace treaty should now apply to Israel's relations with the Palestinians.

From President Anwar Sadat's perspective, Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 was a major provocation. Shortly after Egypt had sent an ambassador to Tel Aviv, Israel violated a sister Arab state's sovereignty and put Cairo in an embarrassing situation. Nonetheless, Sadat refrained from retaliating sharply.

From the Israeli point of view, the Egyptian soldier's attack on Israeli tourists at Ras Burka in October 1985 was an intolerable provocation. Innocent Israelis fell victim to an Egyptian soldier's religious fervor and to the Egyptian army's inflexible chain-of-command that prevented their rescue. And yet Israel refrained from creating a crisis with Cairo.

The considerations and spirit of mutual restraint that guided Israel and Egypt's leaders in both these cases should now apply to Israel's relations with the Palestinians. Both sides should start out by making a supreme effort to uphold the understandings that were declared at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit last week. They should adopt a tolerant and restrained approach to blunders, errors and acts of deliberate malice by the other side, instead of the natural tendency to look for signs proving that the other side is still plotting and scheming.

Just as the peace with Egypt, lame as it was, benefited both states, so the cessation of the armed struggle with the Palestinians and channeling the conflict to the political course are expected to be good for both nations. This should be the guideline, despite the mortar attacks of one side and the light finger on the trigger attitude of the other. And whoever takes this line is not a sucker but a wise leader.

The situation between Israel and the Palestinians may not be identical to the relations that developed between Israel and Egypt after a comprehensive peace treaty was signed between them, but it is similar in principle. Both sides have experienced the horrors of war and identified the limits of their powers. Both sides crave peace. Both have much to lose if the delicate balance between them is disrupted. Therefore, they must take care not to kick over the fragile series of understandings they have reached.

Just as an immediate and radical Israeli retaliation to an Egyptian provocation at this stage is unthinkable, so the government in Jerusalem must exhaust every avenue of talks with the Palestinian leadership in response to violations of the cease-fire agreement, before taking the military option.

Restraint as a concept was prevalent in Israel's public discourse at the end of the '30s: the Jewish leadership advocated restraint in response to the attacks of the Arab gangs, while the Revisionists (the right-wing movements of those days) believed in retaliating harshly to every attack. The worldview and considerations nourishing that controversy are valid today: The community leaders and the fighting force at their disposal (the pre-independence army of the Haganah) believed that restraint served the national interest by promoting sympathy for the Zionist cause among the British public and its government and preventing escalation in the Arab public's animosity toward the Jews. The Irgun Tzvai Leumi (Etzel) commanders believed that only an eye-for-an-eye approach would deter Arab rioters and create a balance of terror.

The recommendation to stick, as much as possible, to responding with self-restraint to the Palestinian provocations is therefore not an invitation to turning the other cheek; it suggests learning a lesson from history (the Jewish leadership's policy during the British Mandate ultimately led to the establishment of the state) and using common sense. The cease-fire agreement is threatened by grave dangers on both sides: radical groups striving to undermine it, blunders perceived as a threat and government orders that are not being enforced.

Thus, for example, the circumstances in which Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed a Palestinian youngster near the Atzmona settlement are not clear. The incident provided the pretext for a mortar attack on Gush Katif two days after the Sharm summit.