Next step in Gaza campaign divides Israeli leaders

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 8, 2009 

JERUSALEM — As Israel pushes into the third week of its military campaign to destabilize the hard-line Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip, the country is reaching a political crossroads.

One way would move toward an evolving diplomatic truce that would leave Hamas severely crippled, but still in control of the Gaza Strip.

The other would lead Israeli soldiers into the heart of Gaza on a ground offensive that some strategists argue shouldn't end until Hamas is removed from power.

Israeli leaders are divided over which way to go.

As in the 2006 war against Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, Israeli leaders are wrestling with the reality that getting out of Gaza could prove to be more difficult than going in.

The United Nations Security Council on Thursday night approved a resolution calling for "an immediate, durable and fully-respected ceasefire," which it said should lead to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. It also called for unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance to Gazans, and efforts, which weren't specified, to stop arms trafficking into the Gaza Strip.

It was unclear whether Israel and Hamas would heed the U.N. cease-fire call, and if so, how quickly. Hamas leaders had rebuffed both the Western-backed plan and international calls to halt their sporadic rocket attacks on Israeli cities, and Israeli troops were poised to intensify a military operation that's killed nearly 800 Palestinians.

Israeli leaders, led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said they'd end the fighting if they had assurances that the rocket fire and the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through tunnels under the Egyptian border would cease.

Diplomats — from Egypt, France, Turkey and the U.S. — are searching for ways to meet those demands.

Although they've been driven underground, Hamas leaders said they wouldn't stop the attacks until Israel pulls its soldiers out of Gaza and allows a normal flow of supplies into the isolated Mediterranean strip, which borders Egypt.

There's also no consensus on how to beef up security along the Gaza-Egypt border to ensure that Hamas doesn't re-establish the network of tunnels that Israel has bombarded in the past two weeks.

Diplomats are pushing the idea of putting an international force on the Gaza-Egypt border to combat smuggling. The disagreement is over which side they'd patrol.

Egypt is reported to be resisting the idea, promoted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for it suggests that the Arab nation can't control its own borders.

Many countries, however, may be hesitant to take part in a monitoring force on the Gaza side of the border, where they'd be prime targets for Palestinian extremists. The history of such multinational forces on Israel's borders, moreover, isn't encouraging.

If a cease-fire can't be secured in the coming days, Israel may feel little choice but to embrace a "turn the screw" military strategy in hopes that Hamas will capitulate. This assumes, however, an underlying pragmatism by Hamas, whose Islamist militants may prefer to die fighting than to yield.

After 13 days of airstrikes on Gaza and six days into a ground offensive that's encircled Gaza City, Israel has had comparatively few losses. Four Israelis have been killed by Hamas rockets fired from inside Gaza, and eight soldiers have died in combat. As a result, domestic opinion is still solidly behind the government, and international alarm about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has had little impact.

The next stage would send Israeli soldiers into the heart of cities and refugee camps. That would bring Israel ever closer to re-occupying the Gaza Strip three years after it forcibly removed Jewish settlers and ended 38 years of military rule over 1.5 million Palestinians.

While Olmert has said that toppling Hamas isn't a goal of the mission, other political leaders, led by Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon, want to bring down the group, which advocates the destruction of Israel.

Looming in the background are Israeli elections next month. The success of the military campaign is critical for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor party is running a distant third in polls. So far, the campaign has provided a political boost for Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who succeeded Olmert as the head of the centrist Kadima Party. Both, however, trail conservative former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's well positioned to return to power as head of the hard-line Likud Party.

Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, was among the few top Israeli strategists to support talking to Hamas after the group won control of the Palestinian Authority in democratic 2006 parliamentary elections.

After watching Hamas seize military control of the Gaza Strip a year later and then seeing the group fine-tune its ability to attack Israel, however, Halevy said that there might be no alternative to pushing Hamas out of power.

"I think it's preferable not to have to reach that point, but if it has to be reached, and if there's no other option, then there's no other option," Halevy said. "You can't stop halfway, because that would do no good."

The danger is that toppling Hamas would create a political vacuum in Gaza.

It also would be politically impossible for Israel to re-install pragmatic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"If Israel were to bring (Abbas) on an Israeli tank it wouldn't do much for his legitimacy," said Dore Gold, one of Israel's former U.N. ambassadors and the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent conservative policy group.

For that reason, even Gold is among those who think it's better for Israel to leave Hamas in power — for now.

"It is sort of like saying the best option is that you will have skin cancer," Gold said. "It's not an option that is particularly attractive."

(Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this article.)

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