It is the problem of being stuck between a rock and a hard place: An escalation in worrying violence in Southern Israel, following a series of deadly terrorist attacks near the Egyptian border from Egyptian Sinai as well as a barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel, has positioned Prime Minister Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu in a precarious situation, which offers two alternative routes going forward, both of which carry risks for Israel.
On one end, Israel has invested much effort on the diplomatic level to prevent a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state on September 20 during the General Debate of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Should Israel's diplomacy aimed at preventing an ill-advised unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood succeed, Hamas would gain because they do not have any interest in seeing a Palestinian state without their control. An even more confident Hamas, obviously, is bad news for Israel. On the other end, the Israeli Prime Minister swiftly ordered retaliatory measures, hitting terrorist leadership and installations in the Gaza Strip, leaving open the option of a more decisive Israeli attack. In case of such an attack the Palestinian Authority (PA) would benefit and prolong their intransigence to make peace with Israel through negotiations. Whichever choice he makes there will be unintended consequences: Bibi's dilemma.
It is ironic that whichever path Netanyahu eventually pursues one of the rival Palestinian parties -- the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip -- will inevitably benefit. An aggressive campaign against Hamas and their terrorist allies would go a long way to restore Israel's deterrence. But the PA would immediately gain sympathy points due to the reflexive siding of the international community with the perceived underdog.
Netanyahu can't be accused of not having tried diplomacy to re-start peace talks and avoid unilateral Palestinian moves at the UN, to which Israel firmly objects. A recent report surfaced describing a secret dialogue between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and President Shimon Peres. Such a dialogue will have been initiated or acquiesced to by the Prime Minister's Office.
Should Netanyahu forgo a stronger military retaliation and instead focus on a diplomatic effort to undermine the PA's unilateral statehood campaign, a likely winner will be Hamas. Israel might be able to peel away from the support for the Palestinian move and key players, such as the EU, and the UN will come their senses as to how best to promote peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Hamas leadership that loathes Abbas would love to see him weakened once his promises of an international imprimatur and approval of Palestinian national aspirations would be disappointed. In the eyes of the Palestinians, with their hopes high, Abbas will not have delivered the goods. Hamas remains concerned that its so-far uncontested rule in Gaza would be undermined should the Abbas and the PA be able to further improve lives in the West Bank and win support of the Gazans.
Militarily, a broader and more severe operation, which would include a massive aerial campaign, targeted killings and other elements, is still in the cards. The decision to go ahead or not with this campaign might be the toughest one Netanyahu has to make to date: Should he continue the so far fruitless diplomatic efforts on re-starting negotiations with the PA and attempting to prevent unilateral Palestinian moves, or should he engage in an iron-fist campaign, which would have the potential to restore Israel's deterrence but might again coalesce the Arab world and re-focus their anger away from the domestic lack of democracy and economic plight and zoom in on Israel. These choices, for sure, are not fully mutually exclusive but each would represent an important signal with respective pros and cons.
Complications from the terror attacks in Israel's south and subsequent military actions extend far beyond the Israel-Palestinian track. Despite a reported ceasefire and calls by Hamas on Palestinian terrorist groups to abide by it rockets from Gaza continue to be launched against Israel. It is surprising that Hamas's iron grip on the Gaza Strip is not enough to actually stop the bombing and shelling. Unable to deliver any tangible improvements in the lives of ordinary Gazans, Hamas and its terrorist subsidiaries distract them by resorting to stirring hatred of Israel. While the true support of and desire for a unilateral declaration of statehood via the UN is unclear it is obvious, however, that Abbas knew how to position the General Assembly efforts.
This pattern of putting cause and effect on its head is well known: Israel will be portrayed as attacking innocent Palestinians while the true goal is to take out rockets launchers, destroy training camps, weapons depots, and eliminate terrorist masterminds who prefer to dwell and hide in civilian areas. These sympathy points would go far in encouraging Abbas in pursuing a UN vote on what better would have been negotiated bilaterally between the parties involved. As an example of this pattern Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez steps forward, wanting to push his European Union (EU) colleagues toward a unified stance in favor of unilateral Palestinian moves toward a declaration of statehood. The timing of this statement suggests a link to Israel's response in the Gaza Strip. We learn: Few know as well as the PA how to turn a seeming setback into a public relations victory.
The gravest and therefore most important outcome of the string of terrorist acts, however, is that Hamas now controls the already fragile situation between Israel and Egypt at will. With this brazen daylight infiltration, supposedly even with use of Egyptian uniforms, Hamas created a situation that is fast spinning out of control. The fallout in Egypt, therefore, is dramatic and deeply troubling: Raging demonstrating crowds at the Israeli embassy in Cairo take down and burn the Israeli flag. This might be a mere glimpse of the hatred of Israel Egyptians share. Wednesday terrorist infiltration into Israel from Egypt's grave incidents resulted not only in casualties on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, but also cost the lives of Egyptian security personnel, apparently hit during the Israeli chase after the terrorists returned back to the Sinai desert during their escape. Egypt's military rulers assumed a confrontational posture of the Egyptians deaths while an alarmed international community rushed to de-escalate the tensions.
The current crisis provides Bibi with a chance to make an implicit statement about the dramatic turmoil that has engulfed the Arab World over the past eight months. He and his cabinet have so far refrained from doing so. Bibi's determined and immediate response to the terror attacks will send a clear signal that Israel -- while sympathetic to the popular demand of democracy and economic opportunity -- will leave unchallenged any attempt at undermining Israel's security and/or her military superiority. Any vacuum that allows extremists to plan, prepare, and implement terrorist activities will be decisively challenged. After the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the security situation in the Sinai has deteriorated and, with shocking ease, been turned into a terrorist haven. For Israel there is every reason to condone hot pursuits of terrorist even onto Egyptian territory from where the perpetrators infiltrated Israel. This power vacuum had already had the Israeli government agree to an increase of Egyptian troops in the Sinai, in excess of the numbers stipulated in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. This decision was based on the assumption that their presence would more effectively fight the radicalism there.
Such an uncompromising fight led by Bibi will also send a clear message to Israel's enemies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon: They shall not be under any illusion with regard to Israel. Israel will not allow radical groups and terrorists, emboldened by the Arab uprisings, to try to change the balance of power in the region, to attack Israel or to undermine the country's deterrence.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is determined to send a signal of Israel's resolve to defend herself again any challenge -- and any challengers -- to its security. This positioning is also a signal to the Obama administration, which hopes to avoid any escalation in an already sensitive situation in the region. While Israel is sympathetic to the Arab desire for democracy the government will not merely observe efforts to renew pan-Arab unity aimed against Israel. Bibi is at a crucial junction where he needs to pick one option. Whichever path he chooses will just be the lesser evil.