The Very Last Moment

A moment before the conflagration breaks out, standing on the edge of an abyss from which those who fall do not return, the call comes: Stop! Will the government have the courage to stop before calamity hits?

Those who sowed this wind of ongoing, not-necessarily-targeted strikes, of locking the gates and suffocating Gaza on all sides, are now reaping the whirlwind. A cabinet meeting no longer need be called today to decide, nor an inner-cabinet meeting Wednesday. The extensive ground operation is already rolling, so it can be told in the streets of Ashkelon. It has already exacted a heavy price on both sides.

The decision on war was made without realizing it, and the cabinet still does not know that this was the decision, exactly as happened in the summer of 2006. This war, too, will end in bitter disappointment. The losses on the Palestinian side, mostly innocent civilians, will only increase solidarity and the willingness to sacrifice. Hamas rule will not be weakened; it certainly will not fall. The same is true for its status in the West Bank.

The rug will be pulled out from under Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues, and the last of their strength will seep away.

But Sderot and the surrounding towns will see no succor: Qassams will not stop falling and Grads will not stop flying. And when we withdraw one day - because after all, we will not want to be permanently swallowed up in the Gaza bitterness - the situation will return to the status quo ante, and all those urging us ahead now will ask, like wise men after the fact, what did this war have to do with you - with you and with not them?

This is precisely the time to say infuriating things - for if not now, when? There is no choice but to talk to Hamas, indirectly or directly, and without preconditions. On the agenda: a cessation of hostilities and a total, long-term halt.

It is uncomfortable and even ostensibly unreasonable to negotiate with those who do not recognize your existence. But the act of negotiating itself is a kind of recognition, and only it will lead the parties to a temporary calm. Lacking a cure, time is also a palliative. Meanwhile, the living will remain alive, because we cannot bring back the dead.

Hamas will take advantage of the break in hostilities to grow stronger, arm and train - that is the usual, eternal argument against a cease-fire. History shows that Israel has more than once agreed on temporary cease-fires that have held. Moreover, who says Hamas uses time more efficiently than we do? Why does time have to work against us? Are we so poor in ideas and initiatives that our enemies will necessarily have the upper hand as time passes? Is our strength and understanding so worrisomely and despairingly limited? If that is the situation, then evil has truly been determined against us.

And perhaps, with a hiatus in the hostilities, we may finally learn to develop the defense system against rockets and missiles - at least this.

If the escalation continues for another day or two - if it drags on and defiles us - it will not be able to be stopped. It will roll along on its own. This is the moment to stop; the last moment.