Time Is Against Israel

Even if Corporal Gilad Shalit were to return from captivity unscathed, the current crisis would not disappear: Israel is being bombarded by Qassams and its citizens threatened with kidnapping.

Even if Corporal Gilad Shalit were to miraculously show up at the Karni crossing gates and declare that he managed to flee from his captors and return home, the crisis stirred by his kidnapping would not come to an end. It would not mean an end to the Qassam rocket fire, attacks on the Israel Defense Forces, and routine kidnappings (three in the West Bank in the past month).

The choice now is between a prolonged state of warfare and "an arrangement," in IDF jargon - non-violent, coexistence between Israel and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, which, if toppled, would come crashing down into an abyss of anarchy and street gangs.

When the crisis first broke, a senior General Staff officer was asked to map out the forces and relationships in the Mahmoud Abbas-Ismail Haniyeh-Khaled Meshal triangle. "It is a system of many agendas," smiled the officer. "A definition that holds true for Israel, too."

Mainstream Fatah has its own agenda, Hamas in the territories has a another agenda (two, in fact - one for its political and one for its military wing), and Hamas outside the territories has a different agenda.

But the same goes for the different streams in the Israeli establishment. The streams in Israel, however, have one common agenda when it comes to the PA ? official responsibility falls on those who have emerged from the underground and taken hold of the reins of power. This agenda is now crumbling in Gaza.

Yitzhak Shamir's government was forced to participate in the Madrid process with PLO members from the territories, who were part of the Jordanian delegation, under the assumption that a common ground could be found. The Yitzhak Rabin government dropped Madrid and turned to the Oslo process so that the more-radical, foreign-based PLO would implement the deal that it blocked for the organization within the territories. This hope fell flat when it turned out that after being imported into the PA, PLO leadership from outside of the territories - both in its harsh Yasser Arafat version and in its softer Abbas version - shied away from any conflict with the more radical Hamas. Once again it emerged that those from the outside are more radical.

The rise to power of the Hamas government rekindled the hope in a new version; and it turned out that once again, external Hamas is tougher than domestic Hamas and is preventing it from adopting compromises that are vital for its continued regime. Fear that this is the case is confirmed by Haniyeh's haplessness in the Shalit affair - from the carrying out of the attack without informing him, through to the holding of the soldier beyond his reach.

Close to the end of the Six Day War and the beginning of the occupation of the territories, the political and security leadership in Jerusalem was complacent with the illusion that "time is on Israel's side" - if the Arabs don't quickly come to terms with Israel in return for territory, the balance of power will change to their detriment. The most prominent representative of this approach was Shimon Peres, in his early days.

The Oslo process reflected the opposite approach - "time is against Israel." If Israel failed to quickly sign an agreement with Yasser Arafat, the terror and demographics would work against it. The most prominent representative of this approach was Peres, in his (relatively) later days. Its greatest believer was Arafat, who decided that the best possible deal, like the one offered to him at Camp David, is worse than no deal at all, which would weaken Israel.

Israel found itself caught up in similar distress in Gaza under Hamas. Time once again reared its ugly head. The continuation of the Shalit crisis for "weeks, months and even years," in the words of a senior militarist, will tie Israel's hands. As long as the captors make sure to send out signals that Shalit is alive, Israel will refrain from action that could endanger him.

The Palestinians have more staying power. The abductors indeed would be happy to secure the release of many, and high-quality, prisoners, and therefore prove that extremists can be successful where moderates can't. But if Israel offers only a handful of junior prisoners and undermines a deal, so what. As far as the abductors are concerned, roasting Israel on a low flame is no less important than the outcome. Giving Israel the run around is equivalent in value to securing the release of the prisoners.

From a strategic point of view, time is working against Israel. Tactically, it is working in increasing the chances of gathering intelligence and planning a military operation to rescue Shalit. But if the captors assess that Israel is close to making a move like that, such an assessment could work to the abducted soldier's detriment. Whatever the case may be, with the crisis in its second week, Israel appears far away from reclaiming its initiative and supremacy.