The unilaterally declared Israeli ceasefire that ended Operation Cast Lead went into effect on January 18. Israel started withdrawing its forces from Gaza on January 19, and Barack Obama was inaugurated on January 20. It was no coincidence. Putting military considerations aside, the top priority of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was to make sure the new president wasn’t facing a “Middle East crisis” on his first day in office.
On January 19 Hamas, too, declared a ceasefire for a week (later extended) on condition that Israel withdrew all forces in that time. Israel complied, and with a bilateral ceasefire now in place, Olmert, Barak, and Livni were able to boast of the war’s success, the smashing of Hamas, and restored Israeli deterrence.
But not for long.
The first ceasefire violations came on January 20. Terrorists in Gaza fired at IDF forces in two separate incidents while also launching 11 mortar shells at IDF forces and into Israeli territory. Fluke parting shots? Not at all. Thirteen of the 16 days since January 19 have seen ceasefire violations, some of them severe. The worst incident to date came on January 27 when an IED killed an Israeli soldier at a border crossing and wounded three others, one of them critically. February 1 — last Sunday — was a particularly busy day for the “ceasefire” as terrorists fired three rockets and nine mortal shells at Israeli towns and villages and also shot at IDF forces, resulting in two soldiers being lightly injured by shrapnel. Then on Tuesday, in an event particularly reminiscent of the days leading up to Cast Lead, a Grad rocket hit the coastal city of Ashkelon, causing property damage. In addition, three people required treatment for shock. Israel responded as it has throughout this latest “ceasefire” period — with tactical strikes, this time against smuggling tunnels and a Hamas training camp.
Israel’s head of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, told the cabinet on Sunday that it’s not Hamas but other groups that are carrying out the attacks. Hamas, he claimed, has begun “internalizing” the blow it suffered and is deterred. The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center describes those other groups as a motley assortment: a “network linked to global jihad”; the military wing of Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah; the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The center, which is itself closely linked to Israeli intelligence, agrees that Hamas wants to sustain the quiet but “does not effectively enforce the ceasefire on the other terrorist organizations.” For Israelis living near Gaza, this is an arcane distinction, as their lives revert to the nightmare that Operation Cast Lead was supposed to end or at least relieve for a while.
Throughout, Olmert, Barak, and Livni have had to weigh political considerations in addition to the new U.S. president. While Olmert faces corruption charges and is due to resign, Barak, as head of the Labor Party, and Livni, as head of the Kadima Party, are prime ministerial contenders along with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the February 10 elections. And not surprisingly — with their claims of a successful military operation already ringing hollow — Barak and Livni aren’t doing well.
The latest poll predicts Likud receiving 27 mandates, Kadima 23, and Labor 17 on election day, but with the Likud-led Center-Right bloc far in front of the Center-Left bloc led by Kadima and Labor. Yet Netanyahu isn’t resting easy these days as another right-wing party — Yisrael Beiteinu — led by Avigdor Lieberman, a nationalist and Russian immigrant, continues to gain on him, coming in with 17 mandates in the poll.
Indeed, on Tuesday, Netanyahu made an impromptu visit to the site of the rocket strike in Ashkelon and spoke with a nationalistic ring, averring that, “A government under my leadership will overthrow the Hamas rule in Gaza and bring about a cessation of rocket fire. The policy of blindness followed in the past years has brought us to this situation. When action was finally taken, the IDF performed wonderfully. But the Livni-Kadima government did not allow the IDF to finish the job….”
Political wrangling aside, Netanyahu and Lieberman are both doing well because the approach represented by Kadima and Labor — based on restraint in the face of terror, reliance on foreign forces and monitors (Egyptian, European, Lebanese) to look out for Israel’s security, and a diffident, apologetic mindset — no longer persuades the majority of Israelis amid ongoing attacks. Netanyahu, who has implied that Israel will go it alone against Iran if necessary, also warned Obama against relying too much on dialogue with the mullahs. Israel knows there isn’t that kind of wiggle room.