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MIDEAST: In a Battle for Legitimacy

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Jan 4 2009 (IPS) - A confident Israel launched the second half of its war against Hamas in Gaza self-assured that it has already secured two central components of the war: the reaffirmation of its right to self-defence, and the legitimacy of its military action. The latter, Israel reckons, derives directly from the modesty, not necessarily of the scope of the operation (the most extensive against Palestinians in 40 years), but of its declared war goals.

With this growth in confidence, the fog of war over the Israeli decision-making process leading into the latest phase of the operation is fast dissipating: following the Hamas decision not to renew the six-month ceasefire, as early as Christmas Eve – three days before the launching of the air assault – the full Israeli cabinet had given the war the green light including, in principle, a major ground incursion.

Then, last Thursday, after Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s parrying trip to President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, the leadership triangle – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Livni – discussed developments from midnight into the early hours of Friday, then convened a secret security cabinet meeting at the defence headquarters compound in Tel Aviv.

The meeting lasted until well after the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. Religious ministers, though willing to transgress the Sabbath, were persuaded by the prime minister to depart at 4 pm “to avoid arousing suspicion that something is imminent.” They left behind proxy votes, adding to the broad support for the ground operation. There were only two abstentions – from ministers who wanted to include a ‘third half’ of the war, overthrow of the Hamas regime.

Not only does the war continue to enjoy widespread public support, but Israeli officials are basking in a perception that their operation enjoys a fair degree of legitimacy in the region, and around the world: officials point to Egypt’s blaming of Hamas as “responsible” for the slide into hostilities, the failure of the Arab League to adopt a unified stand, the postponement of any UN Security Council resolution until at least midweek and the Czech declaration (as rotating president of the EU) acknowledging the “defensive” nature of the Israeli offensive. Above all, they stress the unflinching support of U.S. President George W. Bush, the silence of president-elect Barack Obama and the fact that no U.S. envoy has been dispatched to the area.

Overall, Israel may be upbeat, but Defence Minister Ehud Barak is at pains to stress that not all is rosy: “I don’t want to delude anyone. The ground operation will be neither easy, nor simple,” he warned at Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. A prime target is control of the launching pads from which Hamas units have been rocketing towns and villages up to 40 km inside Israel. The declared objective is to change the rules on the ground so as to eradicate the Hamas will to continue firing, not necessarily its capability to do so.

Israeli officials believe also that the decision to launch the ground operation puts Israel well on the way to accomplishing its broader mission, the restoration of long-term deterrence. Danny Rotschild, a major general in the reserves, interviewed on Israel Radio, said, “Deterrence is composed of two facets – not only a determination to act, but the willingness to take difficult decisions to act.” This, added Rotschild, is now clear to all in the region – Palestinians, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran.

Hamas may have its back to the wall but there is growing concern that the longer they manage to survive the Israeli assault – from the air and on the ground – and even to continue shooting into Israel, Hamas could gain in legitimacy. It already seems to be doing so. One Palestinian, interviewed on international television, said scornfully, “The Israelis say they are fighting Hamas and not the Palestinian people of Gaza. We all Hamas.”

Israeli commentator Zvi Barel writes in the liberal daily Haaretz of the possibility that Hamas will still be in a position to call some shots. “When the war ends, Gaza will no longer be ruled by a ‘terrorist organisation’, but by a government with status which will set terms for any regional move Israel aspires to carry out. Hamas stands to gain through war what it has failed to achieve through its sweeping victory in the Palestinians election.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is straddling a difficult line – between the need in adversity for national unity under his rule, and the lingering hope nurtured by some Palestinians that, for all its bravado, Hamas will end up having its wings clipped.

Full-fledged diplomatic efforts for a new reality in the aftermath of the war have yet to begin in earnest, at a time when a series of transitions of power are taking place – in the U.S., in Israel, and possibly within the Palestinian Authority where President Mahmoud Abbas may be forced to call new elections. At the peak of the fighting, one thing is already clear: The outcome of the war will also largely be about who on the Palestinian side will have their legitimacy enhanced or reduced once the guns fall silent – Hamas or President Abbas.

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