With Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni heading off to the U.S. to sign a deal on stopping arms smuggling at the Gaza-Egypt border, and Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad shuttling to Cairo and back, Israel is clearly in a rush to end the war before Barack Obama takes office on Tuesday. That means Jerusalem’s main concerns at this point are not military but diplomatic — namely, making sure not to confront Obama with a rough situation as he moves into the Oval Office.
For Israel, putting military concerns second means certain aims won’t be achieved — like stopping Hamas’s bombardment of southern Israel. True, since Operation Cast Lead began, the daily number of rocket launches has declined from about 80 to a couple of dozen.
On Thursday, though, a rocket hitting a street in the city of Beersheba gravely injured two Israelis, including a seven-year-old boy, while wounding four others. On Friday, another one hitting the town of Kiryat Gat wounded three and severely damaged shops — meaning Israeli forces have hardly had enough time to put an end to the threat.
Reportedly under an emerging proposal for a deal, Hamas will agree to a one-year truce conditional on Israel withdrawing all its forces within a week. Not only does past experience show that Hamas honors such truces mainly in the breach, but Hamas will also be able to boast that — as with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 — Israel wasn’t able to stop the rocket fire up until the last day of the fighting. For Hamas itself and the masses throughout the Arab and Islamic world who admire it, that’s a psychological victory.
The Olmert-Barak-Livni government also appears ready to end the war without any conclusive results regarding Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in June 2006 and held ever since in Gaza without visits by the Red Cross or anyone else. The same reported ceasefire proposal says Israel “wants Hamas to agree to an explicit timetable for concluding a deal on … Shalit and to be more flexible in what it is demanding in exchange for [him].”
It doesn’t sound encouraging. In summer 2008, after Israel’s deal with Hezbollah trading Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar for the remains of two soldiers, Hamas upped its previous demand of 500 Hamas terrorists in return for Shalit to about three times that number. Apart from the fact that Hamas is not the must trustworthy party on earth, greater Hamas “flexibility” on Shalit hardly inspires confidence in his eventual release on terms acceptable to Israel.
The grim prospect of abandoning Shalit even at a time when thousands of Israeli troops are in Gaza won’t go over well with the Israeli public either. A recent Tel Aviv University poll found 80% of them opposing any ceasefire with Hamas unless, as part of it, he’s released now and not at some vague, dubious point in the future.
As for the ideas about a ceasefire being frenetically discussed in Israeli, Egyptian, and American circles, they center on putting an end to the smuggling by which, particularly since Israel left Gaza in summer 2005, Hamas has been able to bring in vast quantities of Iranian-supplied rockets, explosives, rifles, ammunition, and so on while freely dispatching its operatives to Iran for training. One idea has Egypt stepping up its efforts to stop the traffic, possibly with help from American or other technicians.
But Shlomo Brom, an Israeli expert on arms control, notes that “the only reason Hamas was able to rearm itself so effectively during the [recent] six-month ceasefire was because of an atrocious negligence on behalf of the Egyptians. If we leave it up to them, it won’t solve the problem.” Brom favors, instead, the second idea — a concerted international effort to interdict the rockets comparable to the Proliferation Security Initiative in which at least 10 Western nations cooperate against WMD traffic.
But another Israeli expert, Eyal Zisser, throws cold water on that idea too, saying “these rockets can be smuggled so easily through Sudan or other countries like it. Trying to intercept them on an international level would be a waste of time and effort.” Instead Zisser says an international force at the border is essential — the trouble being that, even if it could work, Egypt completely rejects such an arrangement as an infringement of its sovereignty.
More realistically, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz has argued that “Israel [itself] must reassume control over the [border] since it has been made clear that only the IDF’s physical presence can halt weapons smuggling.” That, however, is a possibility that the Olmert government — which originally campaigned on a platform of further territorial withdrawals — isn’t even considering.
As with the 2006 war against Hezbollah, the Olmert government entered this conflict impulsively — on December 27, a little over three weeks before Obama was to step in — without taking account of contingencies. It launched the war under pressure of Hamas’s rejection of a further ceasefire, Hamas’s intensified rocket fire, and the government’s concerns about Israel’s own imminent elections on February 10. Now, not surprisingly, the government is scrambling to put an end to the fighting while the military situation is still in limbo.
There are also upsides to this mostly negative picture. Knowing such a conflict was an eminent possibility, the Israeli military echelon planned for it and did so well. The coordination between the ground, air, sea, and intelligence branches has been impressive, and — reversing the bad taste left by the imbroglio with Hezbollah — the IDF has performed with its old proficiency including in difficult urban combat, even if the political echelon isn’t giving it time to finish the task.
Perhaps most impressive is the fortitude shown by the Israeli population. After a fifteen-year period marked by suicide bombings, war in Lebanon, and bombardment from north and south, and with a large swath of the country currently under direct threat from the rockets, the Israeli people have shown sky-high morale and almost total unity in backing the war effort, accepting its necessity, and being ready to bear the hardships.
And with polls also showing the Likud-led, right-wing bloc retaining its strong lead as February 10 draws near, it appears the Israeli people also now understand the need for leadership more attuned to the harsh realities of the Middle East.