'Viva la Gaza!'
At the end of two weeks of fighting, Operation Cast Lead has reached a critical juncture, with Israel's reoccupation of the Strip a real possibility. Whether that will happen depends largely on one person: President Mubarak of Egypt
The list of objectives for Operation Cast Lead that the political-security cabinet dictated to the Israel Defense Forces on the eve of the operation was characterized by restraint. It included halting the rocket fire and terror, reducing Hamas' capacity to rearm, continuing talks with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, striking a blow to Hamas' rule in Gaza, preventing a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, and improving the odds for the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. At the urging of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the objective of changing the "security reality" in the south was added.
At the conclusion of the operation's second week, Israel stands on the verge of an expanded incursion into Gaza, is threatening to topple Hamas and possibly to embark on an extended occupation of the Strip. Did the political-security cabinet present the government and the public once again with limited objectives - reminiscent of Ariel Sharon's "40 kilometers" in the first Lebanon War - while actually preparing for a Gaza version of Sharon's Operation Big Pines (which aimed to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization and drive it out of Lebanon, paving the way for Bashir Gemayel to take power)? Did they promise a form of reprisal to neutralize the rocket fire, while actually seeking to grab Hamas leaders and put them in Hadarim prison - or in the ground? Like the way in which, in the summer of 1982, they tried to obscure the fact that the IDF had occupied Beirut?
Anyone who knows Ehud Olmert knows that this prime minister is not about to be tripped up even if he is not covered legally. The cabinet decision of December 24 allows for the expansion of the operation up to the bunker of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Olmert has not said so explicitly, but ministers who listened to him at the cabinet meeting the other day believe that he wishes to persist with the operation until Hamas is brought down, as per Haim Ramon's proposal. Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert's cohorts in the security "troika," are sending the opposite message: They want to declare victory now and get out - Barak with an agreement, Livni via a unilateral move.
For the record, Olmert supports Barak's approach, and prefers to obtain an agreement now that will end the fighting, ensure long-term quiet and keep Hamas from rearming.
War of nerves
The decision as to whether Israel will reoccupy Gaza is currently in the hands of one man: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. At age 80, after 27 years in power, Mubarak, thanks to this war, has regained his status as regional leader, something that had been eroding in recent years. Neither the Saudis, the Syrians or even the Americans can provide the mechanism that will bring calm to the south and halt the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. Only Egypt can.
Egypt has maneuvered agilely between Israel and Hamas. The arms smuggling via the Sinai to Gaza, which Egypt did not thwart, weakened Israel and gave rise to the security threats to Be'er Sheva and Gedera. When the lull fell apart, Egypt signaled that it was upset with Hamas, and publicly embraced Israel. Now they know in Gaza, too, that Mubarak alone can save Hamas from collapse.
Olmert placed the goal of preventing arms smuggling and the rearmament of Hamas at the top of Israel's list of objectives for the operation. He stated openly that weapons are reaching Gaza from Sinai. The prime minister is now waging a war of nerves with Mubarak: The threat of a reoccupation of Gaza is meant to induce a shift in policy in Egypt, which up until Operation Cast Lead, basically shrugged in response to Israel's requests for more effective inspection along the Rafah border. Even the temporary withholding of American aid didn't stop Egypt from making the claim that the arms were being smuggled in by sea rather than via its territory.
Israel is proposing a deal to Egypt that also amounts to a threat: If you take action to halt the arms smuggling, we will continue to see to the supply of food and fuel for Gaza. If you refuse, we will invade Gaza with all guns blazing - and you're liable to find 100,000 or 200,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing our tanks, breaching the border and pouring into Sinai. Then Israel will pull out, close the crossings, and Gaza and all its problems will be your headache.
As of yesterday, Mubarak hadn't blinked. He was not yet willing to acknowledge Egypt's responsibility for the arms smuggling, or to consent to deployment of an international force in Egypt that would also oversee its armed forces. If he sticks to this position, the ball will be back in Olmert's court.
The danger is that if Egypt does not close off the border to the smuggling, and if the rocket threat from Gaza reaches even further into Israel - with the help of Iranian Fajr missiles that could, say, reach Tel Aviv - then there will be voices in Israel calling for the annulment of the peace agreement with Egypt. Such a situation would give Iran and Hamas a tremendous boost and could undermine the region's most important axis of stability and moderation. For its part, Israel would risk losing a crucial strategic interest because of a tactical misstep. Therefore, it mustn't go overboard in exerting pressure on the Egyptians, nor should it turn them into the villains of the Gaza conflict.
The prime minister will have to decide in the coming two days whether to send the reservist divisions into the Strip and risk heavy losses, or to scale down his demands of the Egyptians.
There is no time to lose: The call-up of the reserves cannot be maintained if they are to remain idle. They have to either fight or get sent home. The Katyushas from Lebanon yesterday, and the danger of a second front being opened, are also putting pressure on Israel to make a quick decision.
Regardless of the details of the various cease-fire proposals, there is one thing they all have in common: the perpetuation of Hamas rule in Gaza. Livni's unilateral withdrawal, Barak's improved lull, Olmert's cessation of arms smuggling, and the proposals from Mubarak, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - all presume that Hamas will continue to rule in Gaza and be responsible for things like education and the sewage system. At least as long as Olmert isn't tempted to pursue Hamas' "total collapse."
This can be interpreted to mean that Hamas will have paid a price of several hundred dead in return for an assurance of its sovereignty in Gaza. If it plays its cards right, Hamas will also benefit from open border crossings, and from an international force that will guard Gaza's by land and by sea from Israeli invasion while it goes about blocking arms smuggling. If this works, the world will get accustomed to the idea that a Palestinian state has arisen in Gaza, one that lives in a tense coexistence with Israel.
Operation Cast Lead will thus turn out to be Hamas' War of Independence, at the end of which it can proclaim "Long live free Gaza!" But that will sound a lot better in Sarkozy's French: "Viva la Gaza!"