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Israel's Goals Looking Less Modest

Monday, Jan. 5, 2009

I wrote in these pages and said on the TV program Worldfocus on Friday that Israel had appeared to adopt more modest goals at the outset of Operation Cast Lead than it did in the 2006 war against Hezbollah.

But with Israel's ground invasion of Gaza, that assessment now looks potentially off the mark. Israel may now be looking to do something more than merely degrade Hamas' rocket-attack capability and may now want to seize this opportunity to deal a more decisive and lasting blow to Hamas as a military and political force.

It's unclear, however, whether Israel has expanded its objectives as the fighting has progressed, or whether it has had the same goal from the beginning but has been deliberately vague about its objectives for the purposes of managing perceptions. (Olmert continues to use rather modest rhetoric when talking about the objectives of the war, while others in the Israeli military and political leadership have articulated much more ambitious war aims.)

Another possibility, of course, is that the goal -- to restore peace to southern Israel by degrading Hamas' rocket-attack capability -- remains the same, but the means by which that objective must be achieved have grown because the air campaign did not get the job done.

In an analysis piece in the New York times, Stephen Lee Meyers, lays out the best-case scenario for

In a highly optimistic scenario for Israel and the United States, a clear victory for Israel would make it easier for Egypt, Jordan and countries farther afield to declare common cause against Islamic militancy and its main sponsor in the region, Iran.

Then, as Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel, argued, an international peacekeeping force made up of Turkish and Arab troops could clear the way for a restoration of political control in Gaza by President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Fatah movement and is titular president of all Palestinians, but in reality is the weak leader of only the West Bank.

A two-state treaty could follow, and then perhaps peace between Israel and Syria, leaving Iran isolated behind the buffer of a newly democratic and peaceful, if not particularly friendly, Iraq.

Iran is the one country — aside from Israel — with the most at stake in the outcome. It sponsors Hamas and Hezbollah not only to torment Israel but also to spread its influence in the Arab world. A convincing defeat of Hamas would undercut that strategy, and presumably Iran's ability to resist Western pressure in any broad bargaining — for example, over its support for terrorist groups and even its nuclear program. "It's an ambitious scenario," said Mr. Indyk, with a sobering caveat, "that would require things to get significantly worse before they could get better."

But pursuing such an outcome, which depends on so much that is beyond Israeli control, if that's indeed what Israel is doing, is a significant gamble. It reminds me, in fact, of the kind of optimistic scenarios that were bandied about ahead of the Iraq war (the difference being, of course, that we can say for sure that Israel's primary casus belli, the Hamas rocket attacks, is real, and in the end the same couldn't be said for Iraq's WMD).

But all of this effort to divine Israel's true intentions may only serve to ignore a difficult and seemingly contradictory truth about this war: Israel had no choice but to prosecute a war that is not in its long-term interests. Put another way, maybe Petra and Judah are both correct.