Palestinian rockets from Gaza have been falling regularly on southern Israel. One landed on a crowded shopping mall in Ashkelon, and sent about 50 people to the hospital. So far, nothing more than angry words from Israeli politicians and generals, and more of the small unit actions that have been going on for months.
One guess is that the IDF could not do anything dramatic until George W. Bush left the country. He is no longer in Israel, but he is still in the region. Perhaps IDF cannot wreck havoc while he is talking to the Presidents of Egypt and Palestine (West Bank). He may have been favorably inclined to Israel by seeing the rescues from Ashkelon on television while he was talking with the prime minister. His speech to the Knesset was more Zionist than we usually hear from Israelis. However, we know that he also has to express himself in favor of a Palestinian state. Real-time pictures of fallen homes and screaming mothers from Gaza will not play well on the president's memory.
Also competing for attention is the visit of a delegation from the House of Representatives, led by Nancy Pelosi. Reports are that she wept while visiting the children's exhibit at Yad Vashem, but that is unlikely to maker her impervious to Palestinian suffering.
There is also continuing talk about a cease fire with Hamas and its friends, being worked on by Egypt. Some Israelis see hope in this, even admitting that a recess from violence will allow Hamas to increase its armaments and preparation for greater threats. If the cease fire in the south corresponds with a break-through in negotiations with the Palestinians of the West Bank, something like peace may really arrive with the declaration of a Palestinian state.
For this scenario, one either has to be an optimist of the most extreme kind, or beholden to a weak prime minister, when charges of corruption are making him even weaker. Ehud Olmert may be serious when he talks about about the prospects of peace, or simply reaching out for something to please the American president and secretary of state, and to keep the Israeli police and prosecutors away from his door.
I perceive that my internet friends are dispropionately in favor of Barak Obama. I received a shame-on-you letter from one correspondent who reacted badly to the president's comments in the Knesset about an unnamed politician who would negotiate with the supporters of terrorism. Not too far beneath the surface was Bush's suggestion that it was Obama who would take the role of Neville Chamberlain, the appeaser of Hitler.
That was tough language, but it played well before a population that suffered from Hitler, and which may be the one national constituency in all the world (including the United States) that admires George W. Bush.
The comment did not strike me as unfair. American politics has not stopped at the nation's borders since criticisms of the wars against Mexico and later Spain, Republicans' criticism of Wilson's proposal for the League of Nations, Roosevelt for aiding Britain, or when politicians of both parties took on the Administration when troops were fighting in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States negotiates (indirectly) with Iran, as Israel negotiates (indirectly) with Hamas and Hizbollah. But it is part of the political game to avoid advocating conversation with terrorists or their supporters. Obama showed that he has something to learn about the presidential craft, and left himself open to criticism of the most severe kind. Either that, or he really does think that Iran has something to offer.
The lack of a serious IDF escalation in Gaza, and the flap over the president's remarks have something in common. This region is dry tinder, always capable of igniting. This being the Promised Land important to three religions adds to the emotions. Israel's Knesset, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and other sites attract attention. Palestinians are trying to make their Nakba into an event with international importance. Israel has to defend itself, but patience, good timing, and an awareness of political implications are never far from its calculations.
Things may change in Gaza before some of you read this note. Writing about the Middle East is almost as problematic as living here.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325