The Illusion Vendors

Was Defensive Shield the result of a calculated move by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, aimed at crushing the Palestinian Authority? Or did Sharon arrive at the operation almost by chance, as the result of a succession of tactical responses to terrorist attacks?

The reoccupation of the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield, April 2002, is currently being described as the watershed of the second intifada. The Israel Defense Forces' entry into the casbahs and the refugee camps spearheaded a gradual process that ultimately checked the wave of suicide attacks against Israel's cities.

Was Defensive Shield the result of a calculated move by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, aimed at crushing the Palestinian Authority? Or did Sharon arrive at the operation almost by chance, as the result of a succession of tactical responses to terrorist attacks?

In retrospect, most of his advisors believe the latter explanation to be the correct one. It is true that shortly after taking office, Sharon was presented with a plan of action that had been prepared by Major General (ret.) Meir Dagan. But Sharon's advisors say he acted according to nothing more than general ideas, and that he was forced to retake the West Bank mostly out of a sense of lack of choice, in the wake of that "terrible March" when more than 100 Israeli civilians were killed.

Several months before Defensive Shield, Sharon claimed to have "found the formula for dealing with terrorism." The press reacted dismissively. Now sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are advancing similar arguments about the threat of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip.

The formula exists, they say. If the public and the media wait patiently, they will be able to witness its success. But as time passes, it is becoming increasingly doubtful that they have a compelling plan of action. It seems as though it is not necessarily a conscious choice that has resulted in Israel moving toward a wide-scale conflict with Hamas' Gaza leadership.

Granted, decision-makers are faced with choosing from several disheartening options. Retaking parts of the Gaza Strip would cost many lives. Accepting the continued firing of rockets would allow the threat to expand to other areas. A prolonged, prearranged respite would assist Hamas in amassing more force. It's easy to understand why Israel's leadership is taking its time in deciding.

But the many misleading statements the ruling echelon is throwing around are harder to accept.

b "We will not negotiate with Hamas." In reality, they are quite busy negotiating. Why is Defense Ministry official Major General (res.) Amos Gilad taking such frequent trips to Cairo, if not to consolidate an indirect understanding with Hamas?

The relative calm in Hamas' attacks on Sderot and Ashkelon is not voluntary. The IDF, too, has been instructed to restrain its activity against the organization, and has refrained from launching ground offensives inside the Strip for the past three weeks.

b "A permanent agreement by the end of 2008." The past few weeks have exposed the weakness of the Palestinian Authority's rule in the West Bank.

Coordination of security-related matters with Israel is once again at a low, and PA sources are complaining about hurdles allegedly put in their way by the IDF and the Shin Bet security service. Can the Annapolis peace process be brought to life? Israeli intelligence bodies reunited in their skepticism and in their projections that Hamas would easily take over the West Bank once the IDF ceases its activities there.

Meanwhile, the image of the PA as corrupt is gaining strength among the Palestinian people. Last week, Ruhi Fatuh, advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, was caught in possession of hundreds of cellular phones, which he is suspected of having tried to smuggle in his car while crossing over from Jordan.

b "A rocket-interception system by 2010." The defense minister is optimistic about the ability to complete the development of such a system, the Iron Dome, within the next two-and-a-half to four years. A speedy development could allegedly lift the threat from Sderot (and perhaps relinquish the need to launch a massive ground operation in the Strip).

In actuality, experts are engaged in a fierce controversy on the question of whether Iron Dome could defend Sderot. Some timetable forecasts are far more pessimistic.

Former senior defense officials have recently tried to ascertain the strategy Israel is pursuing in the South. They did not receive any clear answers.

The reluctance on the part of cabinet ministers and the general staff to retake Gaza is of little wonder. Once bitten in South Lebanon, twice shy in taming the Gaza beast.

The politicians can now heed GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant, the only senior officer consistently advocating the need to launch a massive offensive. They can also listen to retired generals, who advise them to engage in direct negotiations with Hamas and reach long-term understandings with the organization.

But the failure to arrive at a decision over a long period of time only further complicates Israel's position, which is already worse than it was after the disengagement, two-and-a-half years ago.

On the Gaza question, is seems as though Israel's leadership is not telling it like it is to the public. Instead, it is disseminating misleading information about what's going on, together with illusions about a nearing solution.