The dispute that erupted Tuesday during a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee session between Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman over the IDF's rules of engagement in Judea and Samaria affects every last soldier deployed in that region. The implications go both ways.
The current situation is that there has been a (so far) non-lethal escalation in violent attacks perpetrated by Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. It is not yet organized terror, but the rise in firebombs and rock throwing incidents could easily devolve into a third intifada in the future. Unfortunately, the military-legal system is working too slowly and the perception among the average Palestinian is that Israel is on the defensive, and that IDF soldiers are not allowed to take decisive action. To achieve the level of deterrence required to prevent the current wave of violence and, more importantly, to avoid slipping into a wider, terror-driven confrontation, Israeli deterrence must appear credible to the Palestinians.
On the one hand, the IDF chief of staff's warning (that easing the rules of engagement would lead to escalation) is valid. Giving soldiers near complete authority to open fire could dramatically increase the number of casualties on both sides. The current calm in Judea and Samaria has eased some of the international pressure – both diplomatic and in the media – on Israel. International pressure will ratchet right back up the moment the casualty toll rises above what has become the norm in recent years.
Furthermore, the calm in Judea and Samaria is mainly a result of the cooperation between Israel and the forces subordinate to the Palestinian Authority. If the IDF's finger becomes light on the trigger, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will no longer be able to cooperate with our forces.
This debate over use of live fire is a chicken and egg conundrum: Will Israeli restraint be able to keep the clashes at a minimum for a lengthy period of time, and is it worthwhile for the IDF to restrain itself in the face of the current level of violence? Or, will our soldiers' patience be interpreted in Ramallah as a significant weakness and prompt the Palestinians to ratchet up the level of their violence, especially as the West continues to funnel aid to the PA?
Israel is facing a choice between two equally terrible options. Gantz is wise to publicly declare that the IDF will continue to use the familiar methods to combat the violence. But quietly, secretly, when no one is looking, he would be wise to also step up, even by a tiny measure, the army's readiness to put an end to the Palestinian escalation.
Trial and error is the only way to find a balance between the facts and the goals. Every new step needs to be thoroughly thought out, and though the finger should inch closer to the trigger, it would be wise to do so slightly, slowly, almost imperceptibly. After all, even the most optimal fighting in the world is a worse option than no fighting at all.