Israel's show of military strength at the Jericho prison – an operation completely in broad daylight and spotlight of the international media – was a pointed message to the leaders of Hamas: Don't play with fire.
Don't even think about breaking existing agreements, like you threatened to do with the guys who killed Rehavam Zeevi. Because the minute you do, we'll be in your house to deliver a quick, sharp dose of preventive medicine. We've got the military might and the intelligence information to do it, and we have become fanatics about keeping agreements. We have especially become fanatics about Hamas.
From this perspective, the operation in Jericho has broad diplomatic implications. It made a clear statement that the world stands by Israel, or at least won't stand in Israel's way when it uses military force to respond to violations of agreements.
Many (not all) Hamas leaders lean towards canceling the agreements the previous Palestinian government made with Israel. From the outset they viewed these agreements as traitorous against Islam, the Palestinians, the Arabs, and the right of return.
Now, the Jericho operation has given them an extremely unpleasant choice: If Hamas rips up the agreements signed by the Fatah government it will simply be unable to rule. The tanks that rolled into Jericho could easily do so to Ramallah to shut down Palestinian matters of state.
Getting the message
This aggressive message will penetrate deep. It already has. The Hamas leadership is comprised of men who know well how to interpret Israeli moves. They interpret and they fear.
Hamas decided to stop terror attacks when it became clear that left with no other options, Israel would go so far as to assassinate Sheikh Yassin on a wet winter's day, without worrying about setting the entire Middle East on fire, as many experts predicted would happen. But the fire never broke out.
The operation at the Jericho jail will strengthen, therefore, the moderate forces in Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and will weaken the extremists. For this reason, the move will strengthen Mahmoud Abbas.
What will Abbas say now to Hamas? "Look, guys," he'll say, "what did you achieve by speaking about releasing Ze'evi's killers? I'll tell you what you achieved: Our security forces have been humiliated, Israel's chalked up a military and PR victory, and you've exposed all our weaknesses for the world to see.
The IDF move in Jericho proved Ehud Olmert's administrative abilities. He solved a multi-faceted, complex and complicated crisis. He made it possible for the IDF to go all the way with the tactics of pressure; for this he needed strong nerves.
Many things that could have happened, didn't. Israeli prime ministers have gotten mired down in the mud by far less complicated military operations.
Memories of terror
Israeli residents continue to live with memories of the intifada, when any Israeli action brought another wave of terror. But since then, reality has changed. Terror organizations now have limited ability to operate; they are only able to enlist limited numbers of suicide candidates. There is no longer a nation behind them ready to sacrifice itself as it once was.
Reports in the international media about the operation itself were restrained and balanced. Western governments reacted with understanding, even with sympathy.
And Arab governments? As usual, they fled the scene. They gave no support to Hamas. This message, too, was received in Gaza and Ramallah.
The folks who came out with their hands up from the prison in Jericho could well have signaled the beginning of the end of the Hamas government, before it has even been established.