The Next Move

Colonel A., a GOC Southern Command intelligence officer, is one of the central figures responsible for the professional successes of Operation Cast Lead, and one of the youngest. When GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant was appointed commander of the southern operational arena, A., an avid bicyclist, was selected as head of the intelligence team preparing for the "Tour de Gaza."

The group included various units of Military Intelligence, including Unit 8200 (responsible for deciphering signals and code), an operational brigade, the Shin Bet security service, Southern Command and Gaza Division intelligence collection units, field intelligence and the air force and navy.

All of these have been vested with the responsibility of collecting data and creating a target bank for units operating in Gaza in recent weeks.

But even the best intelligence cannot rescue Israel's government from the bind in which it now finds itself - it sent the IDF to operate in the northern portion of the Gaza Strip against a Hamas armed force and to take control of most rocket launch sites, but the army's current achievements do not solve the problem in its southern portion, particularly in the "buckle" of the Gaza belt, that is, the Egyptian border.

Nothing left to do in northern Gaza

Security Council Resolution 1860 calling for a cease-fire in Gaza did not surprise Israel, nor is it particularly bad from its perspective. Israel's disappointment stems from poor working relations between two presidents (George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy) and their foreign ministers.

Sources in Jerusalem said yesterday Sarkozy was content to postpone the council's deliberation on the matter, but French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner ignored his president's instructions and operated independently. Bush decided not to instruct Condoleezza Rice to veto the council's recommendation, and in the final analysis Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed in his attempts to make sure his European and American counterparts responded to Israel's needs.

Were it not for the Security Council resolution, it is possible the government would qualify the operation until now as a limited victory and allow the IDF to prepare to exit the Strip.

Israel has nothing left to do in the northern Strip against Hamas' Gaza Brigade, which has lost hundreds of soldiers and commanders in battles with four IDF brigades, in addition to the hundreds killed in aerial attacks. Every additional day there will be simply be another reckless gamble.

Weighing military or political initiatives

The problem is that the successes in the north have not yet spread to the south. Egypt has still not joined in the effort to fill the breach made in Rafah and the IDF presence in the northern Strip is not enough to rally them to the cause.

In this situation, the choice before Israel is between two types of initiative: military and political.

Military, meaning removing forces from the northern Strip and taking a sharp, quick move to take control of the area between the sea and Kerem Shalom crossing. This seizure of control could thaw Cairo's freeze, but could also lead Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to remove himself from the Gaza issue completely, and would leave the IDF at the Rafah crossing for the next few months.

A political initiative not including a comprehensive agreement, the very existence of which would upgrade Hamas' standing, and combine the removal of ground forces with maintaining freedom to wage aerial or ground warfare, find the Hamas leadership (including its "political leadership") responsible for rocket launching, and raise creative solutions to conducting a supervised lifting of the blockade on Gaza without endangering Israel. This could include flights from the Gaza airport and transfer of goods at its port, all under tight monitoring, and allow the Palestinians to manage their own affairs.

Israeli soldiers were not killed to enthrone Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza, but the weakening of Hamas is expected to finally allow moderates in the Palestinian Authority the courage to wage a concerted confrontation against their opponents.

Today or tomorrow Israel will make clear with its actions whether it intends to bring its Gaza operations to a close before Barack Obama takes office, or whether it will serve as a wedge between the Palestinians and Hamas for an extended period.

The first option is better. If it fails, and the rockets continue to fall, Israel will be able to return to taking military initiative.