Olmert 298 .
(photo credit: Ori Porat)
Notwithstanding the cabinet's authorization for the IDF to fight on, Israel's decision to unilaterally halt offensive military operations in Gaza for three hours daily so residents can obtain supplies is just one of several indications that our decision makers are seeking an endgame to Operation Cast Lead.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly intimated that he opposes expanding the land war against Hamas, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has expressed appreciation to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for their efforts to advance a cease-fire. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad told CNN that the Hamas leaders he hosts in Damascus were in fact "ready [to make a deal]. They were ready, they are ready."
Like it or not, the spotlight is now shifting to the diplomatic arena at a moment when - while Hamas has been dealt a series of punishing blows - the bulk of its guerrilla army and military hardware remain unscathed.
We have consistently argued that Israel cannot tolerate the existence of a hostile regime between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan. Hamas stands as the antithesis of the two-state solution - the quintessential enemy of reconciliation. The prospects of cutting a deal with relative Palestinian moderates like Mahmoud Abbas are improbable so long as Hamas remains in power.
EGYPT IS spearheading the cease-fire efforts in coordination with the US, France and Britain, and in consultation with Israel and Hamas. Assuming Cairo comes up with an agreement, the UN Security Council can be expected to provide its imprimatur.
The Egyptian plan, presented when Mubarak met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Sharm e-Sheikh, reportedly calls for a temporary cease-fire as well as opening the crossing points into Gaza from Egypt and Israel for humanitarian relief. The Bush administration is pressing to include a reference to halting rocket attacks from Gaza and an end to smuggling into the Strip through tunnels from Sinai.
Egyptian media say any cease-fire would then be followed by further talks on long-term arrangements.
Publicly, Hamas leaders in Damascus and in Gaza are talking tough. After meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the Syrian-based Mohamed Nasr said, "Our position is clear: End the aggression, withdraw from Gaza; open the crossing points, especially Rafah; [and] a total lifting of the blockade." And when last heard from, Mahmoud Zahar, in Gaza, declared that his men would confront and defeat the IDF.
Zahar's bluster apart, the assumption among Israeli analysts is that Hamas is eager for a time-out.
So if a cease-fire is in the offing, Israel needs to be very clear about what it expects from such a temporary cessation of hostilities. It must also adhere to the larger strategy of asphyxiating Hamas in the fullness of time.
For now, Israel must insist that:
â€¢ the smuggling of weapons, munitions, terrorists and contraband via tunnels below the Philadelphi Corridor not be allowed to resume. If it does, all our efforts in the current fighting will have been in vain.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland has recommended widening the corridor on both sides of the border and declaring it a closed military zone. This would require Egypt to be fully on board, and financial backing from the international community to relocate those displaced by the need to create a cordon sanitaire.
Meanwhile, Israel must reserve the right to continue military operations against the tunnels.
â€¢ the security reality be changed. The purpose of the IDF operation was to deter Hamas from attacking. If the Palestinians violate the cease-fire by firing, tunneling, smuggling or manufacturing weapons, Israel must enjoy the freedom to retaliate, and in a timely fashion.
â€¢ prior to implementing any cease-fire, Gilad Schalit be freed in exchange for Hamas gunmen taken in the current operation; plus, perhaps, others captured subsequent to his kidnapping. Israel will never have more leverage to free him than it has now.
â€¢ the mandate for any international forces that would police the crossing points explicitly give them the kind of enforcement authority that earlier EU "monitors" lacked. If not, their presence would be meaningless and Israel should oppose permanent opening of the crossings.
The cabinet must not lose sight of the fact that the goal of this operation was not a cease-fire, but to stop Hamas terror.