What Israel Could Learn from the Gaza Kidnap Drama

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The Gaza kidnapping drama highlights a problem facing Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert reminiscent of the famous complaint of fictional Godfather Michael Corleone: "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in."

In fact, it took less than a year for Olmert to send the Israeli military back in to Gaza after withdrawing from the territory last August. They're not planning to stay, of course — the army is there in response to the kidnapping of a 19-year-old corporal, and also to put a stop to rocket fire from northern Gaza into Israeli territory. But Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon started with similarly limited goals, and events conspired to keep the Israelis there for 18 years. Even if they do retreat again from Gaza in a matter of days or weeks, the current dynamic in the Palestinian territories suggests they'll inevitably be back.

The kidnap drama has simply highlighted a fundamental flaw in the policy of unilateral withdrawal on which Olmert based his election campaign. Absent any agreement with a Palestinian government that is willing and able to enforce order, militants will continue to attack Israel. The idea that Israel can "disengage" from the Palestinians without their cooperation is wishful thinking.

Israel has already made clear that if Corporal Gilad Shalit is killed, it will exact a terrible revenge on the Palestinian political leadership. It may even target Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who has reportedly reached agreement with President Mahmoud Abbas to seek some form of a two-state solution, in response to international demands that Hamas recognize Israel. But it isn't Haniyeh and the Hamas leaders in government that are behind the kidnapping; Israel believes the perpetrators are hard-liners taking orders from exiled Hamas leaders in Syria, who oppose the reported shift towards moderation and compromise by Haniyeh and others in government. Whether or not leaders of the Palestinian government are assassinated, the likelihood is that Israeli actions to punish Palestinians for the kidnapping are likely to be met by further escalation from the Palestinian militants. And the playing out of that familiar vicious cycle will likely keep Israeli forces active in Gaza for a long time to come.

Ironically, although Ariel Sharon and Olmert's strategy of unilateral withdrawal was specifically designed to bypass the elected Palestinian leadership, it has given an effective veto power to a handful of militants who, by their violent actions, are able to force Israel to reverse itself. The events of recent weeks has exposed the emptiness of the promise that unilateral withdrawals would free Israelis of the moral burden of occupation and make them safer behind a high wall. No wonder Israeli media are reporting that the violence in Gaza has turned Israelis against Olmert's plans for further pullouts from the West Bank.

Even as his focus in the days and weeks ahead is on immediate military action, in the long term Olmert's choices are unpalatable: He can heed right-wingers such as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and simply reoccupy Gaza, or he can follow the advice of those, like his Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who insist that Israel's security ultimately requires a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The latter, of course, means dealing with a credible Palestinian government — and for the foreseeable future, Hamas would likely be the leading element of such a government. As remote as the possibility of an Israel-Hamas government peace agreement may seem right now, the alternative of a unilateral "peace" has already proven itself to be an illusion.