Israel weighs its options.
By Sunday night, Day 5 of Operation Pillar of Defense, the question of the hour in Israel was still: ground operation or no?
It’s clear by now that Israel’s top decision-making triumvirate of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is genuinely not thrilled about the idea and still hopes to avoid it. At the same time, ground forces keep streaming to the Gaza border and a large-scale reserve call-up continues.
A ground invasion of Gaza is, of course, full of risks. It entails losing Israeli soldiers—in a society radically sensitive to such losses. It also entails collateral deaths of Palestinian civilians—in a world that seems uniquely intensely concerned about that issue, while minimally concerned about vastly greater numbers of civilian deaths in Syria or Sri Lanka.
Linked to that preoccupation with Palestinian civilian casualties is the West’s fragile support and short timeline for Israeli military operations, as Israelis well recall from the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the 2008-09 Cast Lead operation in Gaza.
In lieu of a ground operation, Israel has been trying—with an onslaught of aerial and naval strikes on terror targets—to get Hamas to accede to a ceasefire.
In an ongoing awesome display of pinpoint precision and intelligence coordination, the strikes continued on Sunday and targeted weapons stockpiles, government buildings, and top Hamas chiefs including, reportedly, the head of its rocket program.
The problem was that, despite the drubbing, Hamas remained unintimidated and undeterred and kept up its no-less-relentless bombardment of Israeli civilian targets. Hamas fired over 100 rockets in the course of the day. One of them hit near a car in the southern town of Ofakim, wounding five people.
For the most part, though, the Hamas projectiles either missed their targets or—more commonly—were shot down by the already-legendary Iron Dome air defense system. That included a few more rockets launched all the way—but ultimately harmlessly—to Tel Aviv. As an Israeli columnist noted: “Paradoxically, [the] long-range rocket attacks [on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem] showed the limits of Hamas’s potency.”
Yet Israel was still left with the problem that its clear upper hand in the hostilities had not convinced Hamas to desist, so that the momentum toward a ground invasion continued.
Along with the military campaign, by Sunday night Israel was still hoping to resolve the situation through diplomacy. The central figure in these efforts—more than President Obama—is Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi, of course, as a member of Hamas’s parent-organization the Muslim Brotherhood, is no less ideologically hostile to Israel than Hamas itself. Morsi, however, faces both an Egyptian economy on the brink of disaster and his own terror problem of Salafi and other forces in Sinai.
As a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt described it: “Morsi needs a peaceful border with Israel and continuing security cooperation in order to tackle terror in Sinai as well as the economy.” Hence the hope that he could get Hamas to stand down. As of Sunday night, there were mixed reports on the success or failure of Egyptian-mediated truce talks in Cairo.
As for Obama, he remained publicly supportive of Israel’s campaign so far, telling reporters in Bangkok that
there is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders…. Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory. If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable. That’s not just preferable for the people in Gaza, it’s also preferable for the Israelis because if Israeli troops are in Gaza they are much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.
…if we’re serious about wanting to resolve this situation and create a genuine peace process, it starts with no more missiles being fired into Israel’s territory and that then gives us the space to try and deal with these long-standing conflicts that exist.
We’re going to have to see what kind of progress we can make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours, but what I’ve said to [Egyptian] President Morsi and [Turkish] Prime Minister Erdogan is that those who champion the cause of the Palestinians should recognize that if we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza then the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future.
These words could be taken as a “yellow light” for a ground invasion, though how long Obama’s—let alone European leaders’—support would last is of course open to question.
Even if a ceasefire is achieved, Israel’s leaders have no illusions about it continuing for very long or solving the problem of terror from Gaza. They may, however, prefer to save what political capital Israel has for dealing with the much more serious security problem of Iran.
The other alternative, for now, is to go into Gaza and deal more decisively with Hamas.
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