Neither of the kidnappers, the Hamas who abducted the Israeli corporal Gilead Shalit, 19, Sunday morning, June 25, or the Fatah which snatched Eliahu Asheri, 18, a few hours later, had any intention of negotiating their return. Therefore, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, may have meant well when she and her colleagues urged both sides to resort to diplomacy to solve the crisis. But there intermediaries had no one to tango with: the Hamas abductors kept well out of their reach and quickly severed contact, while the Fatah who snatched their victim in Jerusalem for a large fee from the Popular Resistance Committees, murdered their victim the same night.
The crisis and the urgent need for military action – both to rescue the kidnapped soldier and punish the Hamas terrorists for their cross-border attack – caught Israel at a bad moment.
The three individuals at the top of the ruling pyramid are totally inexperienced in military, foreign and security affairs and have no notion how to handle an international crisis. Prime minister Ehud Olmert, a seasoned politician, knows a lot about economic management and party institutions. But he has never had to deal with the war on terror or worked with generals. He was catapulted unexpectedly into the job by the sudden stroke suffered by Ariel Sharon in January. His Kadima then came out of a general election with a grudging lead.
Defense minister Amir Peretz, who headed the national union federation and organized industrial action and strikes, is even less qualified for his job than the prime minister. He won one of the most sensitive and challenging jobs in the Middle East only because he was head of the Labor party and became Olmert’s main coalition partner – certainly not because of his resume. In fact, Peretz sees his post as a stepping stone to the top of the tree, figuring that if he performs well, his party has a good chance of winning the next general election and making him prime minister.
The ex-union leader’s ability to tackle the tasks of defense minister is further complicated by his unshakeable belief that all conflicts are solvable by negotiations between the disputants and both sides aspire to peace. Because of this constraint, the IDF was held back and lost a precious two and a half days before it was allowed to go after the kidnappers of the missing soldier. If he had let commando units familiar with the territory enter the Gaza Strip in time, they might have stood a chance of catching the Hamas abductors and their victim before they went into hiding.
The third individual sitting at the top of Israel’s power pyramid is foreign minister Tzipi Livni. She once served in the Israeli Mossad, but most of her career has been spent in the practice of law. She too lacks any background in military affairs or the war on terror. Aware of the competition between Olmert and Peretz, Livni stands aside, hoping they will finish each other off and make way for her to bid for the premiership.
Beset by these contrasting and conflicting interests, chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz has been trying to make the armed forces perform in the face of directives from a group of politicians whose decisions have no basis in the knowledge or understanding of military principles. For instance, until this week, the prime minister forbade the IDF to use fighter jets or spy planes over the Gaza Strip because world opinion would disapprove. He allowed the defense minister to ban preventive IDF sorties and ambushes in the fringe areas of the Gaza Strip to block Palestinian incursions into Israel.
A Gloomy Aftermath Portended
Even if the hostage episode has a happy end – and it must be said that the abducted Israeli soldier’s chances of being recovered alive fade with every passing day – it will no longer be possible to conceal in its aftermath how deeply the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sunk into an abyss. There is no apparent answer to the big question, which is: who will the United States and Israel pick to fill the vacuum at the head of Palestinian government? Mahmoud Abbas is confined to the Gaza Strip under siege and has been exposed as a nonentity. His Fatah was caught red-handed taking an exorbitant sum for the kidnap and murder of an Israeli civilian teenager on behalf of the Gaza terrorist umbrella, the Popular Resistance Committees. Marwan Barghouti, hero of the Fatah’s armed wing, the al Aqsa Brigades, is serving six life sentences in an Israeli jail for terrorist murders. A Palestinian emergency government would be logical if there was a figure able to form one. However the difficulty of finding a strong and competent Iraqi leader able to cure the plague of terrorism is replicated for the Palestinians. Neither the Americans nor the Israelis have a candidate able enough to head a government in Ramallah and terminate Palestinian terrorism.
In any case, the Palestinian Authority has crashed, and Abbas, Dahlan – or even Barghouti – will be loath to pick up the pieces.
Even Hamas, whose Gazan leaders went into hiding to escape Israel’s mass arrests on the West Bank and Jerusalem, will be reluctant to move back into the offices they earned by winning the Palestinian general election last January. There is a growing movement in Hamas, Gaza and Damascus, which argues that the movement does not belong in government but in the battle arena, where it should conduct itself like a fighting Islamist organization and engage Israel and encroaching Western influence in direct combat.
Because of this trend, the United States and Israel may have to get set for repeat performances by various terrorist groups of the Hamas-led raid on Kerem Shalom Israeli post on Sunday, June 25, which left two Israeli soldiers dead and one in the hands of terrorists.
At Hamas training facilities, teams have been drilling small-scale, deadly raids across Israel’s borders to murder and kidnap Israelis, as well as mega-attacks. Israel will be provoked into cross-border reprisals. This deadly cycle of violence will spiral unless a strong leader is found to govern the Palestinians and cure their deeply ingrained terrorist violence and anarchic tendencies. But no such prospect is in sight.