January 14, 2009

The Israeli debate over what to do now in Gaza

There is ongoing debate inside the senior Israeli leadership over what to do now in Gaza. The three leaders - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - all have differing views on the best way to proceed. All seem to be in agreement that Israel has done about all the damage to Hamas necessary for a ceasefire, as long as it can get guarantees that Hamas will not be allowed to rearm.

The debate comes at a time when we continue to hear optimistic (and seemingly unfounded) reports from Cairo that a ceasefire is at hand. Given what Hamas is demanding, it is unlikely that Israel will agree. If the Israelis do not believe the ceasefire gives them a victory, they will not go along. They will not repeat the perceived failure in Lebanon in 2006.

Some of the more outrageous Hamas conditions include a demand that Israel withdraw before a ceasefire takes effect, in other words, it is going to continue to attack Israeli troops in Gaza and Israeli citizens in southern Israel. Hamas also does not want a two-year truce, saying that is too long. That means the group believes it will be able to reconstitute itself sufficiently to resume attacks on Israel before two years has passed.

There is also a proposal from Cairo for a ten-day ceasefire in place. The only party that will gain from that hiatus is Hamas. It will give the group a breather from the relentless nonstop Israeli assault. Israel cannot afford to have its troops sitting idle in the Gaza Strip for ten days. Many of them are reservists who are not at their jobs.

As long as the army is perceived to be accomplishing the objectives, the Israeli people will support the operation. If the operation begins to take on the appearance of an occupation, it will dredge up memories of the past difficulties in Gaza.

So now what? The three Israeli leaders all agree that it is time to find an end to the operation - an exit strategy. Here's where they stand:

- Livni favors a unilateral withdrawal on Israel's terms with no ceasefire agreement. She believes agreements only limit Israel since Hamas will not live up to its commitments in any case.

- Barak believes a ceasefire is necessary to provide the framework in which the international community will have a stake in preventing Hamas from rearming and continuing its attacks on southern Israel.

- Olmert believes that if Israel cannot get a favorable ceasefire, the army should move deeper into Gaza's cities and camps and hunt down the remnants of Hamas.

The winner: Tzipi Livni. The Israelis should declare their objectives met and begin to withdraw back to Israel proper. They should also warn Hamas that any resistance will be met with an overwhelming response. If Hamas continues to fire rockets or attack Israeli troops, then Israel will know its objectives have in fact not been met and resume the attack.