Playing the Clock in Gaza

Not surprisingly, at the same time that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud declared that Israel was “getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself,” it chose to signal a distinct pause in its Gaza operation. That’s because it also, coincidentally, happened to be getting close to entering Gaza, which would represent a point of no return for both sides in the conflict. Now, you can’t get water from a stone, so if there’s simply no way to get international guarantees for the ceasefire terms that both sides need to silence the guns, this conflict will expand and escalate, with a lot of wild cards coming into play.

But no one wants that, least of all Israel, which is why Israeli President Shimon Peres is saying the operation should only last a few more days. That amounts to roughly the time it will take to locate and bomb the rest of Hamas’ smuggling tunnels, perhaps. Or else the time it will take to establish firm control of the Philadelphi corridor, which might offer Israel a way to unilaterally cease its kinetic operations while seeking a more stable solution to securing the Gaza border crossings.

This, though, from the same McClatchy piece sums up the dilemma Israel faces should it not get the diplomatic results it’s looking for:

Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, the head of the Israeli militaryintelligence branch during its 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, saida failure to secure a political deal soon could force Israel to go sofar as to bring an end to Hamas rule of the Gaza Strip.

“Toppling them is something we’d like to see happening there, but wedon’t want to be the one to replace them,” said Kuperwasser. “This isnot the goal of the operation, but if they force us to go in and in andin, this might end up as the outcome.”

I’m not sure I’d want to be depending too much on the head of military intel for the disastrous 2006 Lebanon War for my advice on how to deal with Hamas. But this has been the problem with Israel’s offensive from the minute it was launched. Leaving Hamas intact will only make it stronger, and destroying it leaves a power vacuum that no one, least of all Israel, is able or willing to fill. (See Nathan Field’s WPR Briefing for why.)

My hunch is that what Israel has been playing for all along is this very pause, with its exit strategy boiling down to confronting the parties around the negotiating table in Cairo with the brink that it represents. That’s a pretty big gamble, and the next few days will determine whether or not it will pay off.