Military Editor of the Jerusalem Post, Yaakov Katz, discusses Israel's strategic perspectives
JERUSALEM (JTA) -- In the second week of the war in Gaza, with Israeli ground troops poised to intensify their actions against Hamas militants, weapons stores and rocket-launching sites, diplomatic efforts to end the fighting gathered pace.
Israeli analysts said that although the Hamas military infrastructure has been dealt a devastating blow, the organization's fighting force remains largely intact. One of the goals of the Israeli ground operation is to hit the militia's fighters hard, which could entail tough house-to-house combat.
The militiamen have taken up positions in built-up areas in densely populated towns and refugee camps, and confronting them in those conditions could be very risky for Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.
Nevertheless, Israel's military planners say they are determined to break Hamas as a fighting force by engaging the militiamen in close combat. In the limited fighting so far, ground forces say they have killed dozens of militiamen and taken dozens more prisoner.
The possibility of serious escalation, however, brought French President Nicolas Sarkozy and three European foreign ministers to Jerusalem in an effort to bring the fighting in Gaza to an end. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indicated Israel's readiness to end the war, but only if its exit demands were met. Otherwise it would ratchet up its already intense military pressure on Hamas.
The Israeli dilemma is how to create conditions on the ground that guarantee security for southern Israel without granting Hamas a measure of international legitimacy. The Israelis have been warning against a scenario in which a defeated Hamas makes enormous political gains merely by being treated by the international community as a full partner in cease-fire negotiations.
This, they argue, is totally unacceptable, for two main reasons: Hamas gained power through a violent coup in June 2007 and is dedicated to Israel's destruction. The Israelis are therefore seeking a new international "arrangement" that would address all their security concerns, as well as the issue of border crossings to and from Gaza, without Hamas having any say in the negotiating process.
In other words, Israel is not interested in returning to the old formula of third-party mediation for a cease-fire, or tadiyeh, a process that would give Hamas a degree of international recognition.
In their contacts with the Americans and Europeans, Israeli leaders have outlined three key elements they would like to see included in the new arrangements: a credible cease-fire to end rocket fire on Israeli civilians, an internationally supervised mechanism to prevent Hamas rearming, and joint European Union, Egyptian and Palestinian Authority supervision at border crossing points.
To deter Hamas from firing more rockets after a cease-fire is achieved, Israel wants to have its right to retaliate written into the cease-fire terms.
The biggest headache for the Israelis is the possibility of Hamas rebuilding and even enhancing its rocket-firing capabilities by smuggling new and longer-range weapons across the border with Egypt under cover of a cease-fire.
Israel is therefore demanding that the new arrangements on the ground include collapsing all the smuggling tunnels under the Philadelphi route along the Gaza-Egypt border, erecting a physical barrier on the Egyptian side of the border that would make smuggling virtually impossible, deploying an international force in the buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza and securing a commitment from Egypt to stop the flow of arms into Sinai, from where they find their way to the Gaza border.
Hamas' main demand before and during the fighting has been that Israel allow the opening of all crossing points in and out of Gaza. Israel says it is prepared to do so, on the basis of a 2005 agreement under which the crossings would be supervised jointly by Israel, the Palestinian Authority (not Hamas), Egypt and the European Union. This is also the Egyptian position with regard to the Rafah crossing point from Gaza into Egypt.
One of the difficulties with the uncompromising Israeli position against talking to Hamas is the way it complicates chances for the return of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Israeli leaders say they would like to see Shalit's return as part of the overall cease-fire arrangement, but it is hard to see how this could be accomplished without a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas.
The Americans and Europeans are split in their approach to the Israeli cease-fire terms.
The Americans say a cease-fire should only be put in place when conditions exist for it to be stable and lasting. In other words, only after something like the new border reality Israel envisages can be established.
The Europeans, however, say a cease-fire should go into effect immediately. After talks with Livni in Jerusalem, the foreign ministers of the Czech Republic -- the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency -- France and Sweden made it clear they were against waiting until all Israel's war aims are achieved. They say these aims could be secured more easily once a cease-fire is in place.
So where the Americans and Israelis are saying new reality first, then cease-fire, the Europeans are saying the opposite: cease-fire first, then new reality.
In a briefing Sunday to the Cabinet, Shin Bet security agency chief Yuval Diskin said Hamas was ready for a cease-fire now, as long it did not feel humiliated by its terms. Military intelligence head Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin said Hamas leaders now understand that their ending of the previous cease-fire with Israel on Dec. 19 had been a major strategic blunder.
Hamas was surprised not only by the scope of Israel's retaliation, but also by the depth of anti-Hamas feeling among moderate Arab leaders, especially in Egypt.
Egyptian leaders, including President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit, insisted that Hamas had brought the Gaza tragedy on itself by not heeding their advice to extend the cease-fire with Israel. Lawmaker Mohammed Basouni bluntly accused Hamas leaders of hiding in underground bunkers and deserting their people in their hour of need.
The Egyptians have strong regional and domestic reasons for their opposition to Hamas. They see Iran as their most dangerous regional foe, and Gaza controlled by Hamas as a forward Iranian base on their doorstep. They also fear the ideological connection between Hamas and the seditious opposition Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt. And they realize that the border tunnels could support terror and violence in the opposite direction -- from Gaza into Egypt.
Israel and Egypt thus have a common interest in weakening Hamas and moderating Iranian influence in Gaza.
Whether they can find a common and effective diplomatic formula to change the reality on the ground -- together with other key international players -- ultimately is what the Israeli military campaign is all about.