The Israel-Hamas cease-fire, brokered by Egypt, is still in effect, which is something of a surprise.
After all, this is a cease-fire few like -- especially in Israel. Some of the same government officials who secured it wasted little time in saying that they did not expect it to last and that, when it did collapse, Israel would launch its long-deferred invasion of Gaza.
In essence, the critics are saying that all the cease-fire will accomplish is a delay in the deaths of, I don't know, dozens or hundreds of Israeli soldiers and hundreds or thousands of Palestinians. Rather than plunge hundreds or thousands of families into mourning this weekend, the cease-fire provides a delay of a week, a month or six months.
I suppose this is a classic example of the half-empty half-full syndrome. But in this particular case, it is indefensible to insist on viewing the glass as only half-empty. Even if the inevitable dead are spared for just a week or a month, it is something. Another week, month, or year with the kids, with parents, with friends. How much is that worth?
I recently saw an interview with a woman whose 22-year old son was killed in Iraq. She viewed his death as a total waste -- an unnecessary death in an unnecessary war. She said that she would give everything she has or ever will have to have just one more day with him.
Now I know some readers are already thinking: "Better to fight them now. They will use the cease-fire to get ready for war."
No doubt that is true. Both sides will use the intermission to enhance their combat capacity. There probably has never been a cease-fire in history during which the combatants did not work to enhance their ability to fight. Of course, that is what Hamas and the Israelis are doing anyway. Cease-fire or no cease-fire, neither side is turning its swords into plowshares.
Nonetheless, this cease-fire is a very good thing. A lot of peoples' kids are being spared. A celebration, albeit a limited one, is in order and, in fact, media reports from the region today tell of children again playing freely in Sderot's playgrounds and Gazans relaxing on the beach. Let's focus on that rather than bemoaning the lost opportunity to "take them out, once and for all."
There is no "once and for all."
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not going to be resolved by way of some decisive military action. Palestinian extremists are not going to achieve their goal of dismantling Israel (without committing national suicide in the process) and Israeli extremists are not going to achieve their goal of Greater Israel (again, not without national suicide). The invasion and re-occupation of Gaza, for which some people are so eager, would not solve anything. If re-occupying Gaza could provide security for southern Israel, the original occupation would still be in effect.
The Israeli novelist, AB Yehoshua, wrote in the Israeli daily, Yedioth Achronoth, Thursday that the whole idea of "victory," one side beating the other, does not apply in this case. "It is important to remember one principle in the 100-year war with the Palestinians. The Israelis and the Palestinians are neighbors -- people who will live in proximity to each other forever. Therefore, the military considerations in this war are not similar to those in force between distant countries that are fighting each other. The residue of blood, both our and theirs, remains in the region, trickling into the memory and infrastructure of the two peoples. Therefore, an immediate cessation of the bloodshed is more vital than the fantasy of complete 'victory' in the long term."
Fortunately, the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians understand that neither side is going to be beaten into submission. (This morning's polls show that the Israeli public support the cease-fire). They may even understand that Israeli retaliation for Hamas attacks on southern Israel will terminate when the Hamas attacks do. And that Palestinian resistance to occupation will end when the occupation does.
A cease-fire is a start.
Israel should do everything it can to make it last. That means living up to the promises it has made to the United States and to President Abbas about improving conditions for the Palestinians. That means finally adhering to a settlements freeze in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Every new or "thickened" settlement is a gift to Palestinian extremists who point to them as evidence that Israel will never permit establishment of a Palestinian state.
It means removing redundant and unnecessary checkpoints within the West Bank. Most checkpoints are not on the border but deep inside the West Bank. They serve no purpose except to make it difficult, or impossible, for Palestinians to move between their homes and jobs, homes and hospitals, homes and school.
It means demolishing those ubiquitous unmanned earthen mounds, which are nothing but traffic bumps to prevent the movement of innocent civilian traffic.
It means allowing the Palestinian Authority to have the equipment it needs to defend itself against extremists. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian interests are served by a weak Mahmoud Abbas. (It is getting tiresome to hear Israelis complain that Abbas is weak when they are denying him the wherewithal to be strong).
In Gaza, it means easing the humanitarian crisis, allowing ailing Palestinians access to medical care and those separated from family members in the West Bank freedom to travel.
As for Hamas, it means maintaining the cease-fire, preventing others from breaking it, and releasing Corporal Gilad Shalit. In short, ending the violence.
That is no small thing. As Yehoshua writes, the one demand that supersedes all others is an end to bloodshed. Nothing else comes close. He dismisses the idea that Hamas' failure to recognize Israel is paramount, "as if all the cease-fires we have made in the past 60 years, both with Arab countries and with the PLO in Lebanon, were made on the basis of 'recognition of Israel' and not on the basis of...a mutual and unconditional halt to bloodshed...." For Yehoshua, the cease-fire is a very big deal.
It won't take any more than the above steps to secure it and to transform it into something more. Not one of the steps I've outlined costs either side anything -- except the satisfaction of making the other side miserable. Although the Israelis have to implement more steps than the Palestinians, they also have infinitely more power. It is the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who hold almost to all the cards. It is time to play them.
"Concessions" should not be made only in response to terror. Doing so only confirms the view held by Palestinian radicals that "the only language Israelis understand is violence." This whole Gaza debacle (including the election of Hamas and its seizure of Gaza) would have been prevented if Israel had negotiated its withdrawal from that territory with the Palestinians, rather than refusing to talk and simply leaving. Ever since Oslo in 1993 the Israelis have refused to implement a settlements freeze and have allowed settlers to terrorize the local population, especially in Hebron. It has to stop.
One thing is certain. The cease-fire will not last if both sides simply sit back and wait, taking no pro-active actions to preserve and deepen it.
At this point, there is no way of knowing what will happen next. In this arena, it is always safe to be pessimistic -- safe but unproductive. There is an opening here. Seizing it with both hands is infinitely less risky than letting the moment pass.
MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.