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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - July 10, 2006

Q. ...what are the Olmert government's strategic considerations in proceeding with Operation Summer Rains in Gaza and pursuing Shalit's release? Q. ...why is the Gaza operation moving so slowly?

Q. Two weeks after the Palestinian abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit, what are the Olmert government's strategic considerations in proceeding with Operation Summer Rains in Gaza and pursuing Shalit's release?

A. The government appears to be facing four primary dilemmas.

The first two concern its declared goals for the operation: how to stop the Qassam rocket attacks without reoccupying all or most of the Gaza Strip; and how to bring about Shalit's release while doing the least possible damage to Israel's capacity to deter possible future attempts to abduct Israelis and hold them hostage in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The effort to stop the Qassams has thus far proven relatively unproductive. Even when the northern Strip was flooded with Israeli troops last week and several score Palestinian gunmen killed, the rocket fire continued. By Sunday morning the IDF had temporarily removed those troops, as if to emphasize its claim that it has no intention of permanently reoccupying the Strip, even as Southern Command CO Yoav Galant proclaimed that the operation could continue for a month or more.

At this point it is clear that both the IDF and the Olmert government are aware of the pitfalls of remaining inside the Strip too long, both in terms of the lack of a viable exit strategy and the international pressures likely to be incurred. It is also clear that even large scale raids into the rocket-launching areas cannot stop the Qassams; at best, they compensate by eliminating large numbers of terrorists and showing the nearby Israeli population that the army is taking great risks to protect them. Only a new and more comprehensive ceasefire arrangement with the Palestinian authorities, including the Hamas government, has a chance to fully stop the Qassam firing.

This brings us to the second goal of the operation, the release of Shalit. The appeal on Saturday by Palestinian PM Ismail Haniyeh for a new ceasefire and Israel's rejection of it appeared to spell out the current state of affairs: Israel's reported conditions for ransoming Shalit--a delayed release of minor prisoners coupled with an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire--are still unacceptable to the Palestinians. The latter are feeling increasing pressure from the Israeli offensive, hence offered the ceasefire. The Olmert government, sensing progress (Yitzhak Rabin allegedly once stated that the loser in a war is the first side to ask for a ceasefire), rebuffed Haniyeh and kept up the pressure.

The military goal appears to be a ceasefire based on the Lebanon/Hizballah model: a largely de facto understanding (occasionally honored by Hizballah in the breach) that rockets will not be fired into Israel, in return for a commitment (also honored at times, by Israel, in the breach) not to engage in military activities inside Lebanese territory.

Two additional dilemmas of the current operation are more political in nature. For one, if the operation draws out because of failure to achieve the first two objectives, should Israel seek, through the use of force, to bring about the downfall of the Haniyeh government and the effective removal of Hamas from political power? Since the January 25 Palestinian elections won by Hamas there has developed a strong school of thought within the security community advocating a military move to inflict heavy damage on Hamas and persuade it to abandon politics. It argues that Israel cannot tolerate an Islamist political neighbor bent on its eventual destruction and allied with other Islamist radical movements throughout the region, and should preempt (or exploit an opportunity like the Shalit affair) before Hamas begins building up an army in Gaza.

But what would come after Hamas? It is extremely unlikely that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) would simply agree to appoint an alternative, non-Hamas government, or that the Hamas-majority Palestinian Legislative Council, with or without the Hamas MPs Israel has jailed, would approve a non-Hamas government. In such an event, Abu Mazen would be pilloried as a quisling. More likely he would resign, possibly seeking to dissolve the Palestinian Authority. The outcome would be anarchy, with Israel either obliged to complete its reoccupation and reestablish its rule over, and responsibility for, some 3.5 million Palestinians, or to beg the international community to step in. Neither of these contingencies offers Israel a potential Palestinian partner from whom a degree of responsibility can be demanded, and neither necessarily bespeaks an enhanced situation for Israel compared to the present situation, with Hamas broadly boycotted and failing to fulfill its basic obligations of governance. On the other hand, the moment Israel reaches a deal for the release of Shalit, this is liable to be interpreted in some circles as indirect recognition by Israel of the Hamas-led government, with all that this implies.

Here it is helpful to recall that, on the eve of the Shalit abduction some two weeks ago, Hamas and Abu Mazen were close to agreement, in the spirit of the Prisoners' Document, on the establishment of a Hamas-Fateh coalition government or a technocrat government, with the objective of breaking the international economic boycott and strengthening Abu Mazen's status as Palestinian negotiator with Israel.

Olmert's second broad strategic dilemma is how to save his convergence or realignment plan for the West Bank in light of the conflagration in Gaza. While last August's disengagement from Gaza can still arguably be portrayed as improving Israel's security--no Israelis have been killed by Qassam rockets since then, the IDF is far freer in terms of international public opinion to fight back, and protecting settlers in the heart of the Strip is no longer a burden--the public is not likely to see it that way. Even before the Shalit affair, Olmert not only failed to enlist the unequivocal support of world leaders for his plan, but Israeli public support for convergence had dropped below 50 percent (latest poll results put it below 40 percent). True, Olmert did not intend to begin actively pursuing his plan until early next year, having pledged first to try to negotiate with Abu Mazen. But those negotiations are now also on the back burner.

In order to proceed with his plan, Olmert has to emerge from the current Gaza conflagration not only victorious, but able to argue that it was easier to win precisely because of disengagement. He then has to present the public with a convergence plan for the West Bank that, somehow, appears less likely to encourage Palestinian aggression there than the Gaza pullout did, e.g., by proposing to remove settlements but not the IDF. He then still has to try to negotiate with Abu Mazen, followed by a successful attempt to persuade the international community, the Israeli public and the Knesset, where his coalition does not necessarily guarantee him a majority, that another withdrawal is in order.

A tall order.

Q. But why is the Gaza operation moving so slowly?

A. In the relatively distant past, e.g., 1956 and 1967, the IDF executed massive blitz operations that ended within days, because it feared early international pressure for a ceasefire and judged it could benefit from the advantage of surprise. In more recent wars, beginning in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon (in 1973 it was Israel that was surprised), neither condition has pertained: the international community, led by the United States, displayed a degree of understanding for Israel's heavy response to terrorism, but the element of surprise was lost, particularly insofar as the enemy constituted a guerilla force rather than a standing army.

This describes Operation Summer Rains as well: by biding its time, letting the Qassam attacks pile up as a casus belli and exploiting the Shalit abduction--an attack on Israeli territory from near-sovereign Gaza--Israel reentered Gaza without the advantage of surprise, but with the US on its side and the EU essentially standing aside. In order to maintain this advantage it must proceed with caution so as to minimalize Palestinian civilian casualties and persuade the international community that the Israeli response is justified and not disproportional. This is a difficult challenge; by July 10 EU pressure on Israel was building up.

Israel also wants to avoid antagonizing the Egyptian and Turkish mediators who are trying to arrange a deal for the freedom of Shalit (the Egyptians primarily in Gaza, the Turks in Damascus, where the real Hamas leadership resides). This is another reason to go slow in Gaza, ratcheting up the pressure on Hamas step-by-step as behind the scenes negotiations proceed, while avoiding a situation that might embarrass the mediators or call into question their neutrality.

Increasing the pressure slowly also sends a message to Hamas: Israel has patience; the Palestinians' situation can only get worse.

Finally, the IDF does not want to endanger Shalit's life. Any dramatic escalation in Palestinian casualties, civilian or terrorist, could conceivably be interpreted by his captors as cause for taking vengeance by killing him.

In order for this gradual approach to work, the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government presumably has to be sensitive to the suffering of its people and to be capable of exercising control over all armed factions. It has to feel threatened, but also to perceive some sort of political reward at the end of the process, such as greater international recognition or at least an enhanced capacity to govern.

So far, those objectives have not been achieved.