Palestinians and Israelis: Prisoners of Public Opinion



A few days ago, I contacted an acquaintance high up in the Fatah Party hierarchy and asked him how he thought the present crisis in Gaza could be resolved.

"The Hamas people," he said, "have climbed up a very tall tree and don't know how to get down."

Then, he added, "Next to that tree is another tall tree, and on top of it I can see [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz, and they also don't know how to get down."

That is a good, if simplistic, description of our predicament.

Both we and the Palestinians have, to a large extent, become prisoners of our own public opinion.

The Palestinian leaders may wish that Cpl. Gilad Shalit had never been kidnapped, but now that he's in their hands, they fear that Palestinian public opinion won't allow them to return him without the release of some of the prisoners in Israeli hands.

Olmert also knows that public opinion will never forgive him if he's not seen as doing everything possible to obtain Shalit's release.

"Everything possible," however, does not include giving in to the demands of his captors. Surrender to their ultimatum would have meant "open season" for a spate of additional kidnappings, and would have had disastrous consequences. Public opinion demanded action that would make the lives of the inhabitants of Gaza so unbearable that they would pressure the captors into giving up the young soldier.

The trouble is that we have seen time and time again that this formula doesn't work. We destroy their power station? The Gazans grit their teeth, say terrible things about Israel, and hunker down. We bomb the prime minister's office? Ismail Haniyeh simply gains in popularity among his people.

Past experience has shown that the more we pressure the civilian population, the greater the hatred against us and the determination to withstand any pressure that we bring to bear. We've been through that scenario so many times that we must know by now that we have very little to gain from "taking out" power stations and bridges, or by firing salvos against questionable targets.

Yet the public demands action, and I don't envy the prime minister. Olmert knows that the only hope to end the standoff is via the efforts of the negotiators — Egyptians, Turks, Saudis, Europeans and Americans. He knows that eventually a deal will be made — with an attached price tag, though that price need not be paid immediately upon the release of our kidnapped corporal.

The prime minister had, after all, been planning to release prisoners as a gesture of good will toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Yet in his present weak position, he has no choice but to play to the public.

The continued launching of Kassam rockets against Israeli towns and kibbutzim has compounded the problem, especially now that two of them have landed in the heart of Ashkelon.

Kassams landed in our midst when our troops were stationed in the Gaza Strip, and when Gush Katif had not yet been evacuated. The truth is that in this sort of warfare, the underdog has advantages, illustrated by the continued terror attacks in Iraq, under the noses of the American army.

An incursion into Gaza will not necessarily bring an end to the Kassams, although it will quench the thirst of the public for action, and will probably provide a partial and temporary respite.

The worst possible scenario for Israel is complete and absolute chaos in the Palestinian territories — a situation where we have no one to talk to, and where every armed gang is a law unto itself. Unfortunately, we seem to be well on the way to reaching such a state of affairs, at least in the Gaza Strip.

The alternative can only come through negotiations with Abbas. That, however, can only take place after the return of Shalit.

Let us hope, for all of us — Israelis and Palestinians alike — that this particular episode of our difficult history will end speedily, and successfully.

David Kimche is a former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.


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