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MIDEAST: Israel at Crossroads Between Ceasefire and Occupation

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Jan 11 2009 (IPS) - Into the third week of its war on Gaza, Israeli leaders are convinced they’re still calling the shots. But, without a suitable diplomatic exit soon, the military “successes” could quickly begin to unravel, some sobering Israeli voices have cautioned.

Israel is disturbed that Thursday night’s UN Security Council call for an immediate ceasefire accords Hamas a degree of international legitimacy – even though Hamas is not explicitly mentioned in the resolution – and that “passage of the resolution,” wrote David Horovitz, chief editor of The Jerusalem Post in a front-page analysis, “will be seen in the frenzied climate of international debate as legitimating unbridled criticism (of Israel).”

But, Israeli confidence is reflected in the way it has shrugged off the resolution and in Israel’s readiness to bear the brunt of that international opprobrium for the desperate plight of the Gaza population. And, although Hamas rockets keep landing on southern Israel, Israeli insists it is not only tightening its military grip on Gaza but is inflicting crushing blows on the Hamas military wing.

“But now, Israel finds itself at a military and diplomatic crossroads – should they reap the dividends of the war thus far or risk taking it further and becoming embroiled in a final showdown with Hamas in the heart of Gaza’s populated areas,” says political commentator Leslie Susser. “The gung-ho advocates who want to destroy totally Hamas control of Gaza are feeding on their past dreams.”

The critical crossroads is starkly defined: either in the direction of speedily securing a diplomatic solution or, towards giving the Israeli army the green light to deepen the ground offensive which could last weeks, in the assessment of military sources.

Until now, conventional wisdom has been that the Israeli leadership was keen to avoid an extended operation in order to avoid a potentially embarrassing overlapping of the war with the installing of the new Obama administration in the U.S. But, says the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, Major-General Giora Eiland, “the army cannot go on like this forever. We need to reach a decision – either conclude a ceasefire in two to three days, or start a big military operation.” The third option – marking time with the same level of strikes against Hamas alongside on-off diplomatic efforts – is simply untenable, argue other defence experts.

In Israel’s policy-making circles, Egypt is perceived as the traffic cop at the crossroads. How it manages to steer the situation could solve Jerusalem’s dilemma of the days ahead. Cairo, in effect, is calling the shots.

In a televised speech from Damascus Saturday night, Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal said the Islamist group would not consider a truce until Israel ended its military offensive and lifted its crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip. But, Hamas delegations from both its Damascus-based politburo and Gaza, held talks in Egypt on Saturday, and on Sunday, Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defence Ministry’s political-security branch, was dispatched to Cairo for a second round of separate talks about concrete measures for getting an effective ceasefire in place.

It is through the tunnels under the Egyptian-Gaza border that Hamas has managed over the past few years to smuggle in its arsenal of long-range rockets and missiles. Israel wants Cairo to take full responsibility for stopping that traffic and for regulating their border in a way that there will be no possibility for Hamas to re-arm.

Before setting out, General Gilad was at pains to stress that “Israel is not pressuring Egypt;” he also praised Egypt’s logistical and security array as “eminently capable” of controlling the border. A key parallel question is whether Israel will acquiesce in what, for its part, Hamas is seeking from Egypt – open and unmonitored borders between Gaza and Sinai and between Gaza and Israel. Israel is prepared for the Palestinian Authority (PA), backed by international experts, to monitor the border. However, PA President Mahmoud Abbas indicated clearly that his Authority would only be ready to be part of such an arrangement once its fences with Hamas have been mended.

This is the equation with which all sides are grappling. Israeli analysts say of Egyptian intentions that it’s not so much a question of bullying Egypt into border arrangements so much as that Hamas has not yet been bullied enough. They base themselves on remarks by some anti-Hamas Palestinians officials who privately express the hope of an eventual routing of Hamas.

For Israelis, ‘bullying Hamas enough’ raises the spectre of their war in Lebanon – not the war against Hizbullah in 2006, but the war on the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1982 when Israel went all the way to Beirut and forced then PA leader Yasser Arafat’s forces out of Lebanon, and tried to install a friendly Christian regime in Beirut. Any incipient thoughts about trying to repeat that in Gaza reportedly led Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak to mutter that anyone harbouring the illusion of toppling Hamas is hiding the fact that that would mean the re-occupation of Gaza.

At the start of this campaign, as in 1982, Israel’s deliberate ambiguity of purpose seemed to stand it in good stead. Now, though, the search for practical ways of implementing the Security Council provisions for a ceasefire is upping the pressure on Israel to lift the veil over the precise strategy it is pursuing – whether to curb Hamas’s hostile capabilities or try to smash it completely.

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