How to Climb Down the Ladder

Following the deadly attack near the Lebanese border, Israel finds itself in complicated circumstances that lead it to cautiously weigh its steps. It does not respond with anger to the infuriating violation of international law.

The ladder discovered last Thursday that two terrorists used to scale the security fence at the northern border will not manage to bring Israel down from the tree it has climbed. (The terrorists killed five civilians and an IDF officer, and injured seven others in an attack on the Metzuba-Shlomi road.) When Israel withdrew to the very last centimeter of the international border, it declared that it would not countenance any violent provocation originating from Lebanese territory.

Ehud Barak, the prime minister in those days, who made the bold decision to evacuate the IDF from southern Lebanon, made it perfectly clear that any act of aggression from the Lebanese side would be answered with a strong Israeli blow that would force the government in Beirut to rein in the Hezbollah.

The infiltration by terrorists last week demonstrated that a unilateral withdrawal that is not accompanied by a diplomatic accord does not bring the conflict to an end, does not eliminate the excuses for continued attacks against Israel and does not guarantee peace for its residents.

The lesson from Lebanon is applicable to the current visit of General Anthony Zinni and the attendant Israeli expectations, just as it is relevant to the calls for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza being led by Ehud Barak, which have considerable support among the public, including a number of leaders of the Labor Party.

When Barak sounded his determined declarations after the withdrawal from Lebanon, he meant every word he said: He was convinced that the moment that Israel were attacked in any way from across the northern border, Israel would make the residents and government of Beirut feel its anger and indignation, just as any sovereign and strong state would behave in similar circumstances. When Barak said these things, he was fully convinced that justice was on his side, that he had complied with the expectations of the international community down to the last detail, and that the long arm of the IDF would strike a blow at anyone daring to attack Israel.

Barak did not succeed in keeping his promise: During his term in office, three IDF soldiers were abducted by the Hezbollah and instead of instructing the Israeli Air Force to destroy infrastructure facilities in Beirut, he began negotiating for the return of the soldiers. There were good reasons for his restraint: the intifada, the desire to prevent it from escalating into a wider confrontation, and concerns for the lives of the captives.

Subsequently, the same was true after Ariel Sharon took office: The Israeli response to Hezbollah provocations were local and measured (including the attack on the Syrian radar). This response was not anything like the scenario Barak imagined, or at least the impression he created when he withdrew from Lebanon.

And the same is true this time, following the blatant infiltration into sovereign Israeli territory and the murderous attack against innocent passersby: The government finds itself in complicated circumstances that lead it to cautiously weigh its steps. It does not respond with anger to the infuriating violation of international law. Even if the IDF is ordered to act, one can assume it will be influenced by the desire to avoid an overall conflagration on the northern border that could drag the country into all-out war.

These things now apply to Zinni's current mission and the notion of a unilateral withdrawal. Partial solutions, like the proposal Ehud Barak now advocates, and the delaying tactics conceived by Ariel Sharon, which are aimed at postponing the decision on the outline of a final accord, will be of no avail: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be brought to an end. To accomplish this, both sides must pay the full price required: for Israel, a complete withdrawal; and for the Palestinians, relinquishing the right of return.

Any other solution would leave the embers of the confrontations burning and these would be liable to rekindle. Experience shows that the IDF's deterrence is not sufficient - not against the Palestinian uprising and not against the Hezbollah's malice. At the same time, experience shows that when Israel resolved its dispute with Egypt and Jordan, it attained the quiet it longs for.