Until the recent escalation, the problem of the Gaza Strip was on the margins of both public and diplomatic discourse. Israel's leaders preferred talking about the Iranian threat and engaging in empty talks with Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar Assad to coping with the Hamas statelet that has risen up against the western Negev. They treated Gaza like an unpleasant illness that, if ignored, would eventually go away on its own. But the escalation was a reminder that Gaza cannot be ignored, and Israel will have to devise a new strategy for the south.
There are three possible scenarios.
b A new order. Israel would reoccupy Gaza, topple Hamas and then hand the Strip back over to Abbas' Palestinian Authority - either directly or via an international or pan-Arabic force. No prominent Israeli is openly identified with this approach, but Benjamin Netanyahu has hinted at it with his talk of "toppling the Hamas regime for the long term."
The cabinet's decision last week enables the Israel Defense Forces to reoccupy Gaza, and handing it back to Fatah would dovetail with the Annapolis process and even the Oslo Accord, which viewed Gaza and the West Bank as a single territorial unit. The problem is that it is hard to plan such complex maneuvers in advance, as they are liable to be thwarted by a violent and chaotic reality.
Israel tried this approach once in Lebanon, in 1982, and failed. It seems doubtful that it would enjoy better success in Gaza. Abbas would hesitate to return to the Strip on an IDF tank, and even if he agreed, he would have trouble ruling. And Israel would have trouble responding to rocket fire from the Strip with a friendly Fatah government in power.
b A balance of threats. After its show of force, Israel would return to a tense, armed cease-fire with a chastened Hamas, but would continue to control Gaza's food and fuel supply to give it economic leverage. This is the approach favored by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who believes in force and deterrence.One could view this as an improved version of the cease-fire with Hezbollah in the north.
This approach dictates that Israel should not determine the identity of Gaza's rulers, just as it has not tried to prevent Hassan Nasrallah's takeover of Lebanon. But it must ensure that its citizens live in peace, and therefore, it must keep Gaza as calm as possible, via a combination of military and economic pressure and continued close cooperation with Egypt. Gaza would continue to be an unrecognized Hamas state until a long-term process of change and moderation comes to fruition.
Over the past year, Barak tried to create a stable balance of threats in the south via the truce agreement and the game of opening and closing the border crossings. The current conflict can be viewed as an attempt by both sides, Israel and Hamas, to improve their positions by bleeding out the enemy - an attempt whose chances of success seem doubtful.
The weakness of this policy is that it gives growing legitimacy to Hamas and impedes efforts to revive the peace process. It would be a hard sell to an activist Barack Obama administration as a desirable long-term solution.
bA completion of the disengagement. Israel would reach a new cease-fire with Hamas and, at the same time, announce that it was ending its responsibility for the Strip and sealing the border crossings, after a transition period during which Gaza, with international assistance, would prepare to obtain its supplies and essential resources via Egypt and the sea. That would finally complete Ariel Sharon's disengagement.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who attributes great importance to international support for Israel, leans toward supporting this approach. She thought at the time that Sharon should have gotten "credit" for Gaza via a UN Security Council resolution, but he did not try hard enough.
Those who support completing the disengagement view the cargo crossings into Gaza as a burden for Israel rather than an asset. Residual responsibility for Gaza's welfare makes Israel eternally guilty in the eyes of the international community, without creating any real leverage over Hamas, which has taken over the Strip and armed itself with thousands of rockets despite the Israeli blockade.
However, this is also no magic solution. There are serious legal doubts as to whether Israel can simply ditch Gaza without an agreement. Moreover, transferring responsibility to Egypt would complicate our relationship with Cairo, and at a particularly sensitive period - the waning days of Hosni Mubarak's regime. Complex diplomatic maneuvering would be needed for Israel to free itself of the burden of Gaza.
In the current political situation, with a divided leadership, elections in the offing and a changing of the guard in Washington, there is no chance that the outgoing government will discuss Gaza's future, nor would it be desirable for it to do so. But the next government will have to devise a new Israeli strategy toward the Strip and market it to the international community. And it would be best to do so very soon.
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