Palestinians Need Israel to Win

If Hamas gets away with terror once again, the peace process will be over.

By MICHAEL B. OREN and YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI

Jerusalem

A quarter century has passed since Israel last claimed to go to war in the name of peace.

"Operation Peace for Galilee" -- Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon -- failed to convince the international public and even many Israelis that its goal was to promote reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world. In fact, the war had precisely the opposite results, preparing the way for Yasser Arafat's disastrous return to the West Bank and Gaza, and for Hezbollah's ultimate domination of Lebanon. And yet, Israel's current operation in Gaza is essential for creating the conditions that could eventually lead to a two-state solution.

Over the past two decades, a majority of Israelis have shifted from adamant opposition to Palestinian statehood to acknowledging the need for such a state. This transformation represented a historic victory for the Israeli left, which has long advocated Palestinian self-determination. The left's victory, though, remained largely theoretical: The right won the practical argument that no amount of concessions would grant international legitimacy to Israel's right to defend itself.

That was the unavoidable lesson of the failure of the Oslo peace process, which ended in the fall of 2000 with Israel's acceptance of President Bill Clinton's proposal for near-total withdrawal from East Jerusalem and the territories. The Palestinians responded with five years of terror.

Yet much of the international community blamed Israel for the violence and repeatedly condemned its efforts at self-defense. The experience left a deep wound in the Israeli psyche. It intimidated Israeli leaders from taking security measures liable to be denounced by the United Nations and the European Union, or worse, result in sanctions against the Jewish state.

One consequence was an Israeli reluctance to respond to periodic Hezbollah provocations following Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. This hesitancy allowed the Shiite terror organization to amass a rocket arsenal with the proclaimed intent of devastating Israel's population centers.

Finally, when Hezbollah unleashed its weapons in July 2006, Israel was widely accused of responding disproportionately. It was pressured into prematurely ending its defensive operations in Lebanon, and compelled to accept an international "peacekeeping" force that has permitted Hezbollah to rearm far beyond its prewar levels.

Israelis are now asking themselves whether their Lebanon nightmare is about to repeat itself in Gaza. The parallels are indeed striking. As in Lebanon, Israel in 2005 unilaterally withdrew to its international border with Gaza and received, instead of security, a regime dedicated to its destruction. The thousands of rockets and mortar shells subsequently fired on Israeli neighborhoods represented more than a crude attempt to kill and terrorize civilians -- they were expressions of a genocidal intent.

Israelis across the political spectrum agreed that the state had the right, indeed the duty, to protect its people. But one question remained: Would the international community consent?

That question grew urgent in the days before Dec. 19, when the tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas expired. Nearly 300 missiles landed in Israel, paralyzing much of the southern part of the country. Yet Israeli leaders held their fire.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Cairo to implore Egyptian leaders to urge restraint on Hamas, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told viewers of Al-Arabiyah Television that Israel had no interest in a military confrontation. If Israel was guilty of acting disproportionately, it was in its willingness to seek any means, even at the risk of its citizens' lives, to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

Yet the U.N. Security Council abstained from condemning Hamas and convened only after Israel resolved to act. The U.N.'s hypocrisy, together with growing media criticism of Israel, is reinforcing Israeli concerns that territorial concessions, whether unilateral or negotiated, will only compromise the country's security and curtail its ability to respond to attack. This fear is compounded when Israelis consider withdrawals from the West Bank, which is within easy rocket range of its major population and industrial centers.

Gaza is the test case. Much more is at stake than merely the military outcome of Israel's operation. The issue, rather, is Israel's ability to restore its deterrence power and uphold the principle that its citizens cannot be targeted with impunity.

Without the assurance that they will be allowed to protect their homes and families following withdrawal, Israelis will rightly perceive a two-state solution as an existential threat. They will continue to share the left-wing vision of coexistence with a peaceful Palestinian neighbor in theory, but in reality will heed the right's warnings of Jewish powerlessness.

The Gaza crisis also has implications for Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Here, too, Israelis will be unwilling to cede strategically vital territories -- in this case on the Golan Heights -- in an international environment in which any attempt to defend themselves will be denounced as unjustified aggression. Syria's role in triggering the Gaza conflict only deepens Israeli mistrust. The Damascus office of Hamas, which operates under the aegis of the regime of Bashar al Assad, vetoed the efforts of Hamas leaders in Gaza to extend the cease-fire and insisted on escalating rocket attacks.

In the coming days, the Gaza conflict is likely to intensify with a possible incursion of Israeli ground forces. Israel must be allowed to conclude this operation with a decisive victory over Hamas; the untenable situation of intermittent rocket fire and widespread arms smuggling must not be allowed to resume. This is an opportunity to redress Israel's failure to humble Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, and to deal a substantial setback to another jihadist proxy of Iran.

It may also be the last chance to reassure Israelis of the viability of a two-state solution. Given the unfortunate historical resonance, Israel should refrain from calling its current operation, "Peace for Southern Israel." But without Hamas's defeat, there can be no serious progress toward a treaty that both satisfies Palestinian aspirations and allays Israel's fears. At stake in Gaza is nothing less than the future of the peace process.