When Lions think they are Lambs

Self-esteem, psychiatrists tell us, is one of the critical character traits required to becoming a well-adjusted, confident person. As with individuals, so too with society and nations as a whole.

In a few weeks the Annapolis "gathering" is scheduled to take place in which some type of framework may be proposed for bringing the Israel-Palestinian conflict to a denouement. This current push for peace is largely the initiative of Ehud Olmert and has, to a great extent, been motivated by his atrocious standing in opinion-polls following the publication in April of the preliminary findings of the Winograd Committee's report on government handling of the Second Lebanon War.

However, the Annapolis conference is also borne of a deep malaise, endemic to the current Israeli leadership, and Israeli society as a whole. That is namely an utter failure to recognise that Israel is strong and the Palestinians are weak. And this is indeed the reality. Israel has all the cards and the Palestinians have very little to offer, yet Israel persists in acting as the weaker party and continues to offer concessions and negotiations when there is very little need to do so.

Israel has de facto control over all the central issues of the Middle-East conflict. Israel controls the territory which is contested by both sides, Israel controls Jerusalem and Israel controls whether Palestinian "refugees" are allowed into the West Bank or sovereign Israeli territory itself.

Crucially, Israel has crushed Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and created a situation in which it has become almost impossible for suicide-bombers to reach Israeli population centres and murder dozens of people, as was the case prior to 2003.

This has been achieved through a number of methods, principally the security barrier, checkpoints in the West Bank and daily IDF operations in the terrorist hubs such as Nablus and Jenin, combined with comprehensive intelligence gathering in the territories.

The importance of this cannot be emphasised enough, for this was the only thing the Palestinians had to offer; a cessation of violence in return for which they demanded a state. Now, however, they cannot even offer that since Israel has already achieved it.

Nevertheless, what is often heard these days is that if Israel should persist with a certain policy, for example targeted killings or arrest operations, it may well lead to the eruption of a "third intifada". Often the terrorist organisations themselves threaten such action. But have you noticed that this has never materialised? Well, it is not for want of trying.

According to the IDF, there were 71 suicide-bomb plots in 2006 which were prevented by the Israeli security services, and 45 people were stopped or arrested in the West Bank in possession of suicide-bomb belts. 279 people were arrested in direct connection to those plots. (Incidentally 126 of those arrested were from Fatah-affiliated organisations, such as the al-Aqsa Martyr brigades.) As mentioned, that these efforts have not resulted in carnage in Israeli cities is due to the ongoing military operations of the army and security services inside the West Bank towns and cities as well as the security barrier.

It is true that terrorists in Gaza are at present making life miserable for the residents of the western Negev region but this too, according to army chiefs such as IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky, could be alleviated with enough will-power, which would involve a wide-ranging operation against the terrorists there and the sealing of the Gaza's border with Egypt.

In light of this, one cannot help but be stupefied by Ehud Olmert's initiation and promotion of peace negotiations at this time. The upcoming Annapolis conference is almost entirely Olmert's initiative. What, however, is there to negotiate about? Ending the conflict through a negotiated settlement and the creation of a Palestinian state is probably in Israel's long term interests and perhaps even inevitable. However, negotiating when under constant threat of violence, when official Palestinian security services have no ability and no inclination to reign in terrorists, is worse than pointless. It merely encourages the terrorists to continue fighting.

As the Israeli National Infrastructure Minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer said this week, if the withdrawal from Gaza has taught us anything, it is that if there is no agreement from the various Palestinian factions to cease violence (and even perhaps if there is), any concession made by Israel will simply be met with more violence.

What then is the solution? Israel must act according to its true strength. Israel and Israeli civilians are sitting pretty at the moment, safe from Palestinian suicide-bombers and terrorists thanks to the IDF. In 2002 there were over 60 suicide-bombings. To date in 2007, there has been just one.

In light of this position of military strength, Israeli leaders could simply state that there will be no negotiations under fire. What comes first is a unilateral ceasefire from Palestinian terrorists and if this takes five, ten or twenty years then so be it. Israeli security services are perfectly capable of managing the violence for twenty years as they have done for the past four years.

Once it has been inculcated into the Palestinians that violence will not succeed, and when the Palestinians themselves take action against the terrorists, only then should progress be made on their demands for a state. One course of action could be to grant them complete autonomy in the West Bank, roughly corresponding to the current Green Line, for a number of years as a precursor to full independence and the establishment of a state. If after, say five years, the Palestinians prove themselves capable of living in peace with Israel then full independence could be granted, which would also entail the signing of a peace-treaty with Israel and the permanent demilitarisation of the new Palestinian state.

These are terms which the Palestinians will never agree to at this point. But they are by any normal standards totally reasonable. Why should Israel discuss making any concessions, territorial or otherwise, when it knows for certain that those concessions will be used as a spring-board for more violence and more terrorism, as happened after the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 or from South Lebanon in 2000?

When a child demands something and kicks and screams in order to get it there are two options: you can give in for a quiet life and give it what it wants, though you know that the kicking and screaming will start again in short order; or you can show it some tough love, refuse to submit to its tantrums and teach it how to behave in a civilised manner, namely that rewards are dependent on good behaviour.

The parallel with the Palestinians is apt. In the past two years we have seen the withdrawal from Gaza, prisoner releases, amnesties for terrorists and even an Israeli election won by a candidate (Olmert) on a platform of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. The kidnap of Gilad Shalit and the war with Hizballah over the summer of 2006 mercifully buried the idea of unilateralism, but the notion of negotiations and further Israeli concessions in return for peace is still seen as a panacea by the political left in Israel.

This naiveté is extremely dangerous as the people of Sderot and the western Negev have found out. In 2005, whilst still Vice-Premier, Olmert said in a notorious speech "we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies". What Israel must understand is that it will get no rest until it shakes off this enervating lethargy. It is only when Israel recognises its true strength that the country will be able address the conflict on its own terms and provide for the long-term safety and security of its citizens.