Can Israel end this war at a time of its choosing?

In its latest conflict with Gaza, Israel has fewer mediators in the region to help bring a ceasefire.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths look at an Iron Dome anti-missile battery near Tel Aviv Nov. 19. Israel bombed dozens of targets in Gaza on Monday and said that while it was prepared to step up its offensive by sending in troops, it preferred a diplomatic solution that would end Palestinian rocket fire from the enclave.

As Israel threatens to expand its Pillar of Defense operation “within hours” if a cease-fire is not reached, the country risks getting drawn into a fuzzier, more costly conflict that could undermine its security in the long-term.

It’s not for lack of foresight, officials maintain. The offensive was carefully calculated and fully took into consideration Hamas’s heightened capabilities since the 2008-09 Gaza war, they say. Yes, the Arab Spring has yielded a regional Islamist alliance that has rallied around Hamas, perhaps emboldening the militant organization that runs Gaza. Yes, Hamas now has the ability to hit areas like Tel Aviv, setting off sirens that haven’t been heard since the 1991 Gulf War. But Israel’s military and intelligence organizations were fully prepared to deal with those new realities, they argue.

What is less clear is whether Israel can control when and how the conflict ends as Israeli reservists amass on the border for a possible ground invasion and the post-Arab Spring government in Egypt struggles to mediate between ideological ally Hamas and estranged diplomatic ally Israel.

“I think we are quite in trouble in terms of the way out,” says veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, now retired. “We don’t have a balanced mediator, and going in by land will change the battlefield in a way that might be very bad for us.”

Roughly 800 rockets had been fired into Israel by Gaza militants this year as of early November. After at least two official Israeli complaints to the United Nations Security Council and petitions to individual governments failed to bring international pressure to bear on Hamas, Israel had no choice but to take military action, says foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

“We can’t have them firing massively every two to three months without doing anything,” he says. “We did warn the international community that our patience was ending. We have waited, for too long maybe. And this time the army was prepared and … went to do battle.”

Operation Pillar of Defense began on Nov. 14 with the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza.

A 15-year truce?

Gershon Baskin, who was involved in indirect cease-fire negotiations with Mr. Jabari up until his death, claimed in a New York Times Op-Ed last week that Israel made “grave and irresponsible strategic error” by assassinating the Hamas leader. He says the same key issues remain on the table now – though without the man who has helped keep Gaza's militants in check during recent rounds of truce negotiations. 

Israel is seeking an immediate cease-fire, to be followed within several days with terms that ensure that that cease-fire will be long-term. Press reports mention a duration of as long as 15 years. Israel also seeks terms that Hamas will not be able to build up its capabilities during that period of quiet, says Dr. Baskin, a veteran negotiator and co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

“What’s the point of having a cease-fire if you’re just going to use it to rebuild?” he asks. “Then the next time you have a war, it’s going to be much more difficult and many more people will get killed. Why should Israel agree to that?”

For Hamas, the terms of a long-term cease-fire would likely require that it takes action to prevent attacks against Israel, and puts an end to smuggling through tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border – the latter a condition Hamas is loath to accept, Baskin says.

Egypt, one of the few entities with ties to both Israel and Hamas, is leading efforts to arrange a cease-fire as Palestinian casualties approach 100. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also in Cairo for talks. But since the last Gaza war, Israel’s relations with both Egypt and Turkey have deteriorated.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected by newly empowered citizens, is far more bound than his predecessor was by the Egyptian public's overwhelming popular support for Palestinians. His government, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, is also much more closely aligned with Hamas ideologically, since the group is a spin-off of the Brotherhood. 

Turkey, meanwhile, has cut nearly all diplomatic ties with Israel since Israel's fatal 2010 raid on a largely Turkish flotilla that tried to break the economic siege on Gaza.

That leaves Israel without a strong voice at the table, especially since the US also has less leverage over Egypt and Turkey now.

“I think it will be very difficult to broker an agreement with Egypt because of the sympathy and the ideological proximity between Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas,” says Mr. Liel, the diplomat.

“Here, politicians expect Erdogan and Morsi to put pressure on Hamas to hold fire,” he adds. “But they want achievement for Hamas, they want to break the siege, they want to end Israel’s targeted killings [of militants] and so on, so there is a limit to how much pressure they will put on Hamas.”

Reuters quoted Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandi today as saying a cease-fire may be imminent. "The negotiations continue, and I hope that soon we will reach something that will put a stop to the mutual violence," he was quoted as saying. "I think we are close, but this kind of negotiations is very difficult, and it is hard to make predictions. President Morsi is committed to fulfill his role as a major player in the area and help with the resolution."

Lack of exits?

It is clear Israel has adjusted its strategy since the last Gaza operation. Cast Lead, as it was called, left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead in just three weeks, bringing strong international condemnation on Israel – most notably in the Goldstone Report, which accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes.

This time around, Israel has been more careful – though some say not careful enough – to avoid civilian casualties. It also has deployed 25,000 volunteers to help with its public relations campaign to explain why no country can be expected to live with the missiles of an Iranian proxy group raining over three million of its citizens’ homes.

But some say it is repeating one mistake it made last time: not having clear goals for the operation beyond the initial 24-hour air strikes on Hamas’s long-range missile stockpiles.

“I am afraid that the Israelis did not have an exit door,” says political scientist Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University. “The same thing happened in Cast Lead. Cast Lead ended not because Israel preplanned an exit door but because [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak, [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni, and [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert could not agree on the targets of the operations and how to finish it.”

Prof. Klein says the cease-fire efforts this time around are unlikely to succeed if Israel doesn’t allow Hamas to walk away from the negotiations with something.

“I am afraid … that the Israeli ego will not allow an agreement in which Hamas can also say, ‘We achieved something.’ ”

If Hamas rejects Israel’s conditions as unacceptable, he adds, that could pave the way for a ground invasion.

Some fighters in Hamas’s military wing are hoping for that, says Baskin.

“My greatest fear is that there are people in the Ezz al-Din wing of Hamas that have a very strong suicide trend and they want an Israeli ground invasion,” so that they can blow up Israeli tanks and maybe even kidnap Israeli soldiers – not caring about the damage such an invasion would do to Gaza and its civilians, he says. “The problem is that you might get what you wish for.”

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