Israeli analysts were divided this week on Israelís military response to Sunday’s Hamas attacks that killed five Israeli soldiers, with some arguing that the reprisal assaults set back the peace process while others insisting it will help in the long run.
"Israel tried to weaken Hamas and to help Abu Mazen," said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
He was referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister widely known as Abu Mazen who has pledged to seek a negotiated cease-fire with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups. He said that by attempting to assassinate Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi (and later in the day a carload of Palestinians allegedly seen moments earlier firing missiles from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli town of Sderot) Israeli Prime Minister Ariel was sending a clear message.
"He is not willing to accept what happened during Oslo, when negotiations were coupled with terrorist attacks," Inbar said, referring to the peace process that began with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. "He is saying that he will continue to fight terrorism all the time."
In an interview published Wednesday by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot, Sharon defended Israelís retaliatory strikes and said there would be more should terror attacks continue. He said he was willing to "go a long way" to achieve peace but that "on one issue there will be no compromise: attacks on Israelis."
Despite Sharon’s stance, Yediot was critical of Israel’s retaliatory action, saying of the Palestinian Authority in Wednesday’s editorial: "When the talks are renewed, what remains of these partners’ ability is questionable. Is this what we want?"
Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East Office in Jerusalem, said it "was not one of the wisest of decisions. But there was thought behind it … and you can make cogent arguments for it."
"Israel did not want to allow them to go to the next stage of negotiations after killing Israelis with impunity," he explained. "There was the sense that they [terrorist groups] had the upper hand before the [retaliatory] strike. So it was a tough call."
Hillel Frisch, a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University and a specialist in Palestinian institutions and political parties, said Sharon’s reprisal assaults were "part of a strategy to urge the Palestinian Authority to strike at [terrorist groups] and that if you don’t do it, we will."
"He doesn’t want the peace process to be a time for Hamas to lick its wounds and recuperate," Frisch added.
Referring to the attack on Rantisi, Frisch said that until now he had believed Rantisi was "a politician and was not involved in actual terror. But according to the Israeli government, it was providing the American government with information that as of late [Rantisi] had been involved in at least defining the goals of terrorism."
Lerman said he believed the peace process would soon resume.
"It will blow over and get back on track in a week or two," he said. "It’s not a reversal, but a bend in the road."
Inbar said that in the long run Israel’s response to the terror attacks will help Abbas to reach a cease-fire with Hamas because the organization is now afraid of Israel.
"It has given Mazen ammunition with which to deal with them," he said. "He can now tell them that if they don’t want to deal with me, they will have to deal with [Israel]."