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"Anyone who says that a big operation in Gaza will be 10 times as complicated, complex and dangerous as Operation Defensive Shield" - the West Bank incursion of spring 2002 - "doesn't know what he is talking about," a senior security expert who is very familiar with the situation in the territories said a week ago. "And not a hundred times, either - it will be a thousand times harder."

A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not completely off the wall. Advanced armies are built to mass forces in order to vanquish rival armies; and on the other side, to attack and destroy those same concentrations of forces, from the air and with shelling and the movement of armored corps. Terrorist and guerrilla organizations operate by the opposite logic: They atomize into particles in order to make action against them difficult. A large-scale Israel Defense Forces incursion into Gaza would bring into the streets not only the organized units of Hamas but also tens of thousands of arms bearers who will jeopardize the soldiers' lives and therefore will constitute targets of preventive or reactive fire, resulting in mass killing.

Since the second week of Operation Defensive Shield, after U.S. President George Bush softened his stance and stopped demanding that Israel end the incursion immediately, Washington has continued to broadcast a message of forgiveness for IDF actions in the territories and in Lebanon. This must not be taken to mean that similar American forbearance would accompany a major operation in Gaza. A possible hint can be found in the recent remarks lby Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the Turkish incursion into Iraq in an operation against the PKK, the Kurdish underground movement. Gates gave the operation days or at most a few weeks, not months. In Gaza months will not be enough.

Since the last week of February, the exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas have become the Gaza war against Ashkelon. That is the overt aspect of the campaign. The covert aspect is the basis for Hamas' funding and supplies, which gives the organization breathing space in terms of munitions, notably Qassam and Grad rockets. As long as Iran is in the picture, the Palestinian story is fated to be a repeat of the Lebanese story.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week again wasted her time on Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert. (Not only Olmert: Rice has created an Olmert-bypass route in her relations with the Israeli government; after meeting with Olmert in Tokyo, she took the trouble to phone Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, separately.) Rice's assistant for intelligence, Randall Fort, likes to say that "intelligence without policy is like energy without motion." In a recent Senate hearing, Fort said that the goal of the Annapolis process is to "achieve a peace agreement that will define a Palestinian state by the end of 2008." That is similar to what was said 25 years ago about the peace agreement between Menachem Begin and Lebanese Christian leader Amin Gemayel, with the encouragement of George Shultz, one of Rice's patrons. It was a fine agreement, and also a worthless one, because Syria opposed it.

Without Hamas, there is no point in an agreement with Abbas, and the only way to restore Hamas to its natural proportions is if Iran is not in the picture. The approach of the American defense establishment, which is expressed more forcefully than Rice's stance, refers to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas quadrangle. Despite internal tensions, there are some who add a fifth side, in the form of Al-Qaida. Back in the 1990s, a Muslim who served in the U.S. armed forces and was recruited by Al-Qaida testified to having been a guard at a meeting between Osama Bin Laden and Imad Mughniyeh, the senior operations figure of Hezbollah, who was recently assassinated.

In the American ranking, Al-Qaida and Hezbollah top the terror chart. Marine Corps Commandant James Conway recently reminded his forces that the campaign against the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaida is intended to contain the Global Jihad and foil the first phase of its plan - the expulsion of the Americans from the Middle East. In the second phase, conservative and pro-Western regimes are to be toppled (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt). The third phase sees the destruction of Israel. The fourth is the conquest of Europe, and in the fifth - the rest of the world

In more down-to-earth terms, because of the attack on the Israeli missile boat Hanit in the 2006 war, by an Iranian missile supplied to Hezbollah by Iran - until the attack Hezbollah's possession of the missile was not known to American intelligence or to Israeli Military Intelligence - the U.S. Navy changed its mode of operation, according to Conway. The Marines, who are the ground corps of the Navy, will no longer go ashore from a distance of four kilometers from a hostile coast, because Navy ships will not be permitted to approach closer than 40 kilometers from the shore. The Marines now need a new amphibious craft that will lick the ocean waves on the way to the shore.

For the Americans, there are two intertwined lessons here: the increasing weight of sub-state organizations (Al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas), which are armed with advanced weapons and operate from failed states, as threats to advanced armies; and the identification of the center of gravity of these organizations in their patron states, above all Iran and Syria. The main arenas of the American rivalry with Iran and Syria are Iraq and Lebanon, including the struggle for the election of the next Lebanese president and the battles against the Lebanese army at Nahar al-Bard. The Special Forces of U.S. Central Command trained the Lebanese army, (whose commander, Michel Suleiman, is the Americans' candidate for president of Lebanon), and they also contributed to the victory at Nahar al-Bard, according to Admiral William Fallon, speaking at a Congressional hearing last week.

Iran and Syria are also using proxies that are using proxies. The commander of the American forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, testified in Congress that the Iranian Republican Guard Corps' Qods Force is running Hezbollah's "Department 2800," which trains Iraqis to perpetrate attacks against American targets. This in addition to the explosives that the Iranians supply directly to their surrogates in Iraq. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said two months ago that Washington was waiting with curiosity to see whether the aid was continuing at its full scale. One of the indications, McConnell revealed, would be whether the next shipment carried Iranian seals of manufacture for 2008 and not only from previous years.

To date it is mainly representatives of the military and of intelligence who have spoken on this issue, and not members of the Bush administration's policy making echelon. However, the importance of their remarks cannot be underestimated in a presidential election year. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, has already stated that one of his tasks is to "educate" the civilian leaders. In a democracy, the decision is of course made by the politicians, but it is the army's duty to shed light on matters by providing the latter with data, explaining significances and recommending alternatives.

Mullen's message is probably aimed at the contenders for the Democratic Party presidential nomination - Hillary Clinton and, more specifically, Barack Obama - far more than at the Republican candidate, John McCain. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clinton acquired a modicum of experience in security affairs; Obama is a complete novice in this regard. McCain, as a retired colonel and as a legislator, is also close in his approach to that of the senior officer corps. The tough decisions will be left to the next president, but already now it is clear that there will not be a hasty retreat from the Middle East. McCain is against that, Clinton is not far from him in her views, and Obama will be educated. Iran is the new Iraq.

Preparations are under way in three of the U.S. Army commands: Strategic Command (long-range attacks with non-nuclear weapons, capability in which the gaps will be closed in the year ahead; prevention of nuclearization), Central Command and Special Forces. General Stanley McChrystal, until now the head of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), will become director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, effectively the senior assistant to Mullen. The Special Forces of the IDF and of the U.S. Army maintain ties going back many years. Following his visit to Israel in January of this year, Mullen related that in a dinner with Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, he asked how the IDF maintains contact with the families. If he had expected an explanation of the activity of the casualties department, he was surprised to see Ashkenazi take from his wallet a list of names - Mullen didn't remember if there were 12 or 20 names - of fallen soldiers with whose families Ashkenazi has maintained close ties over the years, and also as chief of staff. That is how we should behave, too, Mullen told a conference on the treatment of disabled war veterans and bereavement.

Both Tel Aviv and Washington are rightly reluctant to pay the price in blood of a large-scale military operation, in Gaza and in Iran. Accordingly, they are looking for a crack that will constitute an opening to hope - maybe the problem will simply go away, maybe the Hamas government in Gaza will fall apart, maybe the Iranian people will topple the ayatollahs 30 years after the flight of the shah and the takeover by Khomeini. What is now in the cards is a wait of another year or more, until the next U.S. administration has stabilized, while the internal developments in Iran continue to be monitored and a coordinated American-Israeli posture is worked out. By any political calculation, the rocket attacks on Sderot and Ashkelon will send the IDF into Gaza long before that, but it may be that only then, when it will be possible to isolate Gaza from Iran, will the IDF be able to leave Gaza.