JERUSALEM — Disappointed by cease-fires so often in the past, but casting an eye to a better future, Israelis greeted the latest cease-fire announcement in the Gaza Strip with a mixture of skepticism, fear and hope.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is determined to give the truce a chance in the hope that it will create conditions for the return of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped near the Gaza border in June, and set in motion a new peace dynamic.
“The cease-fire is only a stage in a process we hope will lead to negotiations and dialogue, and perhaps bring about an agreement between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert declared Sunday during a tour of the Negev.
Some analysts say Israel is walking into a trap with its eyes wide open. But the government, aware that Hamas could be preparing for a new round of fighting, is ready to take a chance that the lull might change the mood on both sides and lead to significant dialogue.
The Israel Defense Forces has serious reservations, arguing that Palestinian terrorists will abuse the cease-fire to build up their military power for new attacks on Israel.
They fear a lull will create a situation similar to that in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah militiamen exploited six years of quiet to create a formidable military force. In the same way, the generals say, Hamas and other militia groups will use this latest cease-fire to smuggle huge quantities of weapons into Gaza for a much bloodier conflict.
The signals on the Palestinian side have been mixed. Relative moderates from the Fatah movement emphasize the possibility of significant diplomatic progress, while spokesmen from the more radical Hamas tend to highlight what they see as the temporary nature of the lull.
Hamas’ Damascus-based strongman, Khaled Meshaal, warned of a return to intifada violence unless the parties achieve comprehensive peace within six months.
The Israeli left backs the government’s approach. In an article in Yediot Achronot, novelist Amos Oz articulated the left’s yearning for change, coupled with its sense that the cease-fire is the barest of beginnings.
“The cease-fire, if it holds, is perhaps the first flicker of light at the end of the darkness,” he wrote.
The Israeli right, however, sees only folly. Knesset member Zvi Hendel of the National Religious Party said he was “speechless in the face of the government’s stupidity,” especially in light of Israel’s experience in Lebanon.
The cease-fire came about after intensive behind-the-scenes talks between top aides to Olmert and high-level officials close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Israelis told their Palestinian interlocutors that if they could get their act together and stop the shooting, Israel would be ready to make far-reaching concessions in subsequent peace talks. The Palestinians decided to make the effort.
The cease-fire occurred just days before President Bush was due in Amman for talks with Iraqi and Jordanian leaders, and some pundits think the Israelis and Palestinians were signaling that they were now ready to do business under American auspices.
Others attribute the timing to the heavy military pressure the IDF is exerting on the Palestinians. In the past few months, hundreds of Palestinian militants have been killed in Israeli operations in Gaza.
The Palestinians also were aware that the Israeli army was pressing for a large-scale offensive in Gaza along the lines of 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield, which gave Israel the upper hand in the fight against terror in the West Bank. The cease-fire pre-empted any such military plan.
By the same token, the Israeli government was under intense pressure to do something to stop Palestinian rocket fire on the Negev town of Sderot.
But the key question is whether the cease-fire can spark a wider diplomatic process. Olmert and Abbas both seem to believe there is a good chance that it will.
Yediot Achronot’s political analyst, Nahum Barnea, maintains that Abbas and other Palestinian moderates see the cease-fire as the beginning of a process that will lead to an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
According to Barnea, Fatah leaders believe that “if the move succeeds, it will open a crack to a long-term interim agreement with Israel — which will be similar in substance to Olmert’s convergence plan — in other words: Israeli withdrawal to the separation barrier (close to the 1967 border),” he writes.
Ma’ariv political analyst Ben Caspit asserts that Olmert has much the same idea in mind.
“The prime minister hopes for a resounding strategic move that starts with the cease-fire in Gaza, spreads to a cease-fire in the West Bank, develops into a big move for a prisoner exchange … and from there grows into an international conference and the establishment of an axis of moderate states in the Middle East, with the aim of renewing the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians,” Caspit maintains.
Speaking at a memorial on Nov. 27 for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Olmert made a statement designed to trigger the next phase of the wider plan: a large-scale prisoner exchange.
“With Gilad Shalit’s release and his return safe and sound to his family, the Israeli government will be willing to release many Palestinian prisoners, even those who have been sentenced to heavy terms,” he declared.
Olmert and the Palestinian moderates seem to be more or less on the same page, envisioning a string of careful steps leading to full-fledged peace talks: a cease-fire in Gaza followed by a cease-fire in the West Bank, a prisoner exchange, American and Arab players coming in as mediators and negotiations starting on a long-term interim agreement, based on Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and the establishment of an interim Palestinian state with provisional borders.
Despite the leaders’ optimism, however, many fundamental questions remain unanswered: Will the radicals on the Palestinian side allow such a process to get off the ground? Will the cease-fire hold? And if it does, will it prove a historic turning point on the road to a better future, or just a brief interlude as both sides prepare for new and worse fighting?