Sunday, January 11, 2009

Israel in Gaza: What of Stage 3?

Contradictory signals in the Israeli morning newspapers, on the 17th day of the Gaza War. Yesterday Maariv reported that the Israeli cabinet approved a decision to move ahead with a so-called "Stage 3" of the military operation. To briefly review, Stage 1 was the "shock and awe" air assault on Gaza, which essentially transpired during the first week. Stage 2 was the "ground incursion" into Gaza, largely accomplished by the IDF standing army over the last 10 days. Stage 3 is reportedly the insertion of thousands of fresh reservists into Gaza with the apparent intent of re-occupying portions of the Gaza Strip, particularly the Philadelphi road corridor on the Western edge of the Gaza Strip (the site of dozens of underground tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle in supplies and military equipment), as well as a far greater ground push into the built-up urban areas of the Gaza Strip.

But Maariv may have it wrong. The more reliable Haaretz is reporting today on its web site of a serious disagreement within the Israeli inner cabinet. According to Haaretz, Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who is most identified with Operation "Cast Lead") and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (who was the first cabinet member to question the operation of the Lebanon War in 2006) both expressed in a gathering of the inner cabinet on Sunday opposition to upping the ante with Stage 3, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pressing for a full-cabinet green light for Stage 3. Olmert, we should all remember, does not have to answer to the Israeli voters in 4 weeks. Both Barak and Livni are obliged to cast an eye towards a longer-term future. It is not just the need to wind this up by January 20th (Barack Obama's inauguration day); there must be a hope on the part of these two politicians to see this matter more or less resolved by February 10th, Israeli election day. If thousands of reservists are patrolling the streets of conquered and broken Gaza City on February 10th, both understand their political futures will be bleak.

It seems that from Day One of this (mis)adventure, the Israeli leadership was working with a very tight timetable that was largely dictated by the expiration date of the 6-month ceasefire on December 19, 2008. Clearly, when the "shock and awe" started, the Israeli leadership must have imagined a conclusion to the military assault before Stage 3 would have to be implemented. It is not that Hamas has been particularly tough (as Hizbollah was in Southern Lebanon in 2006) -- it is simply that the Israeli "best case" scenario has not panned out on Israel's hoped-for accelerated schedule. And while so far there is nothing resembling an unpopular quagmire for the Israeli military in Gaza, Stage 3 has the potential for quagmire.

Meanwhile, as each day passes and the humanitarian dimensions of the assault on Gaza have become more evident, criticism (or at the very least questions) of the operation has been growing in the Israeli media. Forthe first time since the start of this war, Israeli media is reporting that a soldier has refused to carry out an order on moral grounds. Since Friday, leading Israeli columnists (Ari Shavit, Nahum Barnea) are openly questioning the wisdom of pressing the military campaign, and simultaneously calling for a greater effort to quickly press for a diplomatic endgame.

Even as its forces are being overrun in Gaza, Hamas leaders both inside Gaza and in Damascus continue to posture defiantly, though there are indications that some Hamas leaders, particularly inside Gaza, are ready to turn to a "defeatist" political track. As each day passes without an acceptable ceasefire to the two sides, the logic of the Israeli strategy forces them to press harder, with all the attendant humanitarian havoc. With every day, the alleged strategic gains achieved in the first week of the war are diluted by continued brutal urban warfare. Whatever operational secrecy existed at the outset of the Israeli assault, that secrecy has now been obliterated by the published reports of a serious argument within the Israeli leadership. Both sides are beginning to crack a bit. It's precisely at such moments when horrible mistakes -- even worse than those that have occurred so far -- can occur.

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