Hamas is doing a lot – 100 rockets is a lot – to draw Israel inside, into Gaza. It is likely doing so out of despair, because according to its perception, it's the only choice it has left.
Hamas is facing Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most restrained prime ministers in the State of Israel's history when it comes to using military force. "When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk," said Eli Wallach, the ugly one in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," a moment before he shot his rival to death. "When you don't have to shoot, talk. Don't shoot," Netanyahu is in fact saying.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, the IDF echelon and the majority of ministers in the cabinet stood behind him until Monday. The flood of rockets from Gaza on Monday evening made this restraint increasingly difficult.
There is no Israeli government capable of dragging over a long period of time a reality in which the life of hundreds of thousands of Israelis is subject to the firing abilities of terror organizations in Gaza, and the defense abilities of the Iron Dome system – with all due respect to the Iron Dome.
What has been happening in the past few days in Gaza can of course be seen as a classic round: Hamas begins by firing mortar shells at the Eshkol Regional Council; we respond with Air Force strikes on empty targets; they expand their activity to Sha'ar Hanegev, then to Sderot; we expand the bombings; they go for Ashkelon, Netivot, Ofakim; we call up infantry brigades; they go for Beersheba, Kiryat Gat, Yavne; we expand the bombings and threaten to come in; they go for Rishon Lezion… This is where it usually stops.
The problem in this game is that there is always the possibility that one of the sides will be too successful: Many civilians will get killed, and there will be no escape from expanding the fighting – from their side, by firing at the Tel Aviv metropolitan area; from our side, by using artillery fire and entering Gaza with infantry forces.
The restraint exercised by the current cabinet is really exceptional: It's unusual both compared to right-wing governments and compared to left-wing governments.
"Calm will be met with calm," Netanyahu said. This sentence became part of the political lexicon after being said by Ehud Barak, the defense minister in Ehud Olmert's government. Barak sought a "hudna" (truce) with Hamas, not war. He fought against Olmert and Tzipi Livni, the two other members of the "kitchen cabinet," the narrow forum of the inner security cabinet. When Major-General (res.) Amos Gilad brought a list of Egyptian-brokered understandings reached with Hamas, Barak presented the equation "calm for calm."
Here the calm-for-calm was not an agreed upon condition. It was a desire, expressed during and despite massive rocket fire from Gaza. Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, two senior cabinet members, criticized the restraint outside, but were much less aggressive in the internal discussions. In practice, they let Netanyahu and Ya'alon deal with the rocket fire from Gaza according to their perception. Whoever blames or praises Livni and Yair Lapid for the restraint is underestimating Netanyahu, Ya'alon and the military officials.
The current conflict is unique in another way: In the past, the main question was what would happen to Israel's relations with Hamas after they reached a ceasefire. There were those in Israel who stressed the deterrence; others pursued an agreement. Both knew that everything achieved would be temporary, until the next round.
The question being raised now is different: If Israel deals Hamas a critical blow, who will fill the governmental void it leaves behind? Gaza could turn into an anarchy like Somalia or into a shelter for terror organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda, like what happened in Sinai, in northern Iraq and in some parts of Syria. In other words, Hamas is bad, but it may be the lesser of two evils.
Another unique aspect is the Egyptian involvement, or should I say the lack of involvement. During the Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi eras, Egypt served as an active mediator between Israel and Hamas. General al-Sisi's government is not eager to play this role; it is definitely not eager to pay Hamas a price for delegating the authority of mediator on Egypt.
There is another unique event taking place during this crisis: It is accompanied by a crisis within the ruling faction, a crisis which has to do with the Hamas affair in Gaza only marginally. When missiles fall, the public opinion has no desire for political crises. It tends to support the government and the prime minister, at least in the first days. The timing chosen by Lieberman to split from the Likud Beiteinu faction did not add to his popularity.