The Israeli cabinet met tonight and approved a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza set to take effect at 2AM, Israel time. Hamas is responding to the announcement with fresh barrages of rocket fire. Israel has recently been under immense international pressure to stop the offensive, including substantial pressure from the U.S. The unilateral nature of the cease-fire should be read in the context of Israel’s (and Egypt’s) desire to avoid direct Israeli negotiations with, and thereby the legitimization of, Hamas. By acting unilaterally, Israel affirms this policy of diplomatic isolation.
Opposition to the cease-fire has come principally from the IDF, which is furious at the politicians for stopping what has so far been a lopsided and successful operation that has seen far fewer IDF casualties than expected. The other source of dissent is public opinion, which remains overwhelmingly in favor of finishing the job, and especially against ceasing the operation without the recovery of Gilad Shalit. It is hard to see how Livni and Barak will benefit from all of this in the national elections scheduled for February 10th.
As has been reported elsewhere, when the cease-fire goes into effect the IDF will remain in Gaza and will return fire in response to any minor provocations. My sources say that if Hamas does anything beyond minor provocations — such as rocket attacks — the cease-fire will be voided and the IDF will go back into action.
Color me skeptical. Just as war creates its own momentum, so do cease-fires. It’s going to take tremendous political willpower for Israel to pause Cast Lead and then resume it again. If Hamas’ leaders have any capacity for strategic thinking, they will halt their attacks for a week and ensure an Israeli withdrawal — and then hold victory parades, resume firing rockets, and test whether Israel is prepared to commence Cast Lead II a week after its first iteration was dismantled. In this way, the Israeli rout of Hamas the world witnessed over the past three weeks can be quickly transformed into an exemplar of jihadist bravery and steadfastness. The humiliation of Israel will be complete.
An optimistic way of looking at the cease-fire is that it is an Israeli ploy designed to regain a favorable diplomatic position so that the war can be continued. If Hamas fires rockets at Israel after the cease-fire, Israel will be left with a compelling response to its detractors in Europe and America: No matter what we do, Hamas attacks us. They are forcing us to fight. Of course, world opinion will not be satisfied with a resumption of the operation, just as world opinion declared its dissatisfaction with the original operation approximately five minutes after it started. But the diplomats who administer international pressure might prove to be more understanding.
From here, the war hinges on one thing: whether Israel will make good on its promise to resume Cast Lead if Hamas continues firing rockets. It’s hard to imagine that Israel would consummate three weeks of military mastery with a display of abject capitulation in the face of new attacks. But given the presence of Livni and Barak, anything is possible.