12 January 2009

12 January 2009 - What next for Israel?

Two camps are forming on either side of the Gaza War. Hamas is divided between the Gaza-based leadership, which favors a cease-fire, and the Damascus-based leadership, which has categorically rejected any deal with Israel. On the Israeli side, Ha'aretz reports that foreign minister Tzipi Livni and defense minister Ehud Barak favor a deal to end the war, while prime minister Ehud Olmert wants to seize the military advantage.

The diplomatic ball is clearly in Hamas's court, which is good for the Israelis. In one way, the Gaza-Damascus split is really a proxy for an Egyptian-Iranian split in the Middle East, which suits Israel's interests for the near term. Israel holds all the military cards at the moment, but has some important decisions to make. If it stalls its offensive, it may give Hamas a chance to regroup. If it presses ahead with the third and most invasive phase of its plan, it may encounter fierce resistance and suffer casualties.

There are several apparent unknowns here. Has Hamas really prepared to make a tough stand in Gaza City, or is it just blustering? Even in its most brazen claims, Hamas admits that it has lost 40 percent of its military capacity. Can Israel hold its current position for long, or must it keep moving to retain the advantage, as David Horovitz has argued? If the next phase of the conflict proves indecisive, who will benefit diplomatically? And what will the cost be to civilians on both sides if Israel presses ahead--and if it doesn't?

There are plenty of leaks going 'round--some of them intentional, no doubt--and there is no real way to know what is going on. But while the majority of Israelis back the war, the majority of Israeli analysts seem a bit leery of advancing. Perhaps the memory of Lebanon is strong. And perhaps they know much that is not apparent to those of us watching from the outside.

Certainly if Israel could obtain its preferred terms for a cease-fire--no rockets and international monitoring along the Egypt-Gaza border--it should stop the war. It will have won a real and substantive victory, in more ways than one. The delicate task, it seems, is to escalate the military campaign enough to keep Hamas on the run--and press the advantage if the Tehran line wins out over Cairo's pleas for a deal--without incurring losses of Israeli soldiers or among Palestinian civilians that could tip the diplomatic scales.


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