Cease-fire of Fatigue: What's Behind Mideast Truce?

TEL AVIV—It’s probably the most clichéd adjective used to describe the recent Israeli-Palestinian truce. And yet, the “fragile” cease-fire has proven robust enough to survive 15 rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and the killing of four Palestinians by Israeli troops in the West Bank. But that’s not because Israelis and Palestinians are on the verge of beating their swords into ploughshares.

Instead, the early durability of the cease-fire underscores the weakness of both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Hamas adversaries, as well as the fact that an all-out confrontation in Gaza is simply not an option. Whether it’s in the Jabaliya refugee camp or among the row houses of the battered border town of Sderot, a fatigue has set in after five months of war. Mr. Olmert and Hamas have precious little political capital to order a new escalation in the fighting.

For Hamas, endorsing the truce agreement means buying time to entrench itself as the new Palestinian ruling party. For Mr. Olmert, the cease-fire is preferable to ordering a controversial invasion of the Gaza Strip while the government and army are still under investigation for their botched war against Hezbollah this past summer.

“There’s no doubt that Olmert, [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz and Chief of Staff [Dan] Halutz are influenced due to the fact that they are now under inquiry, and that everybody looks at them with a magnifying glass,” said Danny Yatom, a Knesset member from the Labor Party. “Everybody follows their steps, moves and decisions very closely. There’s no doubt it has an effect on them.”

That’s not to say the government wouldn’t garner support if it were to decide to abandon the truce in favor of an offensive to stop rocket launchers and weapons smugglers.

For weeks, Israeli security hawks and military generals have been beating the drums for an all-out invasion of Gaza reminiscent of the 2002 “Defensive Shield” operation in the West Bank. At the beginning of the week, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the cease-fire is allowing Palestinian militants to rearm with more sophisticated weapons and turning Gaza into southern Lebanon.

But it’s precisely the bitter experience of last summer’s inconclusive offensive against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters that makes the possibility of a serious military campaign in Gaza so unappealing.

Almost a replay of the Lebanon nightmare, an offensive in Gaza would expose Mr. Olmert to a howl of international approbation over civilian casualties, as well as domestic hand-wringing over new reservist call-ups—all without the promise of actually eliminating the Gaza militants.

“Of course [a Gaza invasion is] very frightening for him, because of what happened in Lebanon—the way the army conducted itself, the possibility of having no results to show in a short time, and the possibility of international pressure,” said Avraham Diskin, a political-science professor at Hebrew University.

Mr. Diskin described the cease-fire as ad hoc strategizing—a byproduct of a variety of stresses on Mr. Olmert, ranging from his sagging popularity to an investigation into allegedly corrupt real-estate deals, to the tensions with coalition partners.

“I think he’s really under a lot of pressure,” Mr. Diskin said, and “that at least some of the decisions he’s making are due to those pressures.”

Cease-fires have been notoriously unstable over the course of the six-year Palestinian uprising, partly because of the Palestinian Authority’s lack of control over myriad militant groups operating in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas, with years of prestige at the forefront of the “resistance” to Israeli occupation, had always been a critical linchpin in reaching initial agreement on the truces. But because the Islamic militants never played a political role in the Palestinian government, there was little downside to ordering the organization’s military wing back into action.

Now, for the first time, Hamas finds itself in charge of a Palestinian Authority paralyzed by an international-aid boycott and unable to contain a rising tide of lawlessness. While other militant outfits have pledged to retaliate for alleged Israeli violations of the cease-fire in the West Bank, Hamas has remained committed to the cease-fire.

That’s because the Islamic militant politicians recognize that the organization can’t make good on promises to reform and revitalize the Palestinian government at the same time that its military wing is ordering rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

Over the last week, an Israeli military judge ordered the release of Palestinian public-works minister Abdel Rahman Zaidan after four weeks in prison. The newly released Hamas cabinet member said he believed that his release owed partly to the fact that he is an outspoken supporter of the truce.

“At this time, we are convinced that we cannot resolve any issue with force,” he said. “This is a no-win situation. For that reason, we think a calming would be more fruitful for everyone. There is a need for development and rebuilding.

“There are needs for the Palestinians that the guerrilla fight doesn’t achieve,” Mr. Zaidan continued. “The guerrilla fight is only for annoying the Israelis and giving them a sense of insecurity. We know this won’t achieve our final goal.”

A break in the fighting gives Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party an opportunity to focus on negotiations on a power-sharing agreement meant to pave the way for a restoration of international aid. The rivals are keenly aware that their public has grown weary of the unending cycle of violence.

“Both Hamas and Fatah realize that the Palestinian people are getting bored of this,” said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst. “People are suffering a lot, and they want to relax. They know that more goods might come in, the borders will open, and there might be employment. They know if the fighting goes on, it will mean more suffering. People feel that there’s no use [in the fighting], and that no results have been achieved.”

To be sure, the odds still seem stacked against the long-run prospects for the latest Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire to succeed. Several factors seem to point toward a weakening of the truce: the ongoing hiatus in peace negotiations, the inability of Israel and Hamas to reach a prisoner swap that would release Cpl. Gilad Shait after nearly six months of captivity in Gaza, and the stalemated Hamas-Fatah unity talks.

But for the time being, Israel is cautiously reducing military activity in the West Bank. And even those doves cynical about Mr. Olmert’s peace offering to the Palestinians are quietly holding their breath for something bigger.

“The cease-fire is not only a necessary move; it’s a chance to replicate the cease-fire to the West Bank and turn it into a lever for negotiations with the Palestinians,” said Ran Cohen, a member of the left-wing Meretz-Yachad party. “Even if it was just lip service, in the Middle East, lip service might trigger movement in unpredictable ways.”