The Israeli government's decision to undertake a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip is likely to prove highly misguided and counterproductive and constitutes proof of the amateurish nature of the policies adopted by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
There are three possible explanations for the government's decision:
* the IDF has been sent into Gaza to rescue the abducted Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit;
* the government has been looking for an excuse to try to fatally undermine the popularly-elected Hamas government and is using the abduction as an excuse to accomplish this broader policy goal;
* the IDF has succeeded in convincing the cabinet that tanks, armored personnel carriers and jets are the most appropriate means with which to significantly decrease Palestinian security threats to Israel.
These possible explanations are not mutually exclusive and two or all three of them may be applicable. However, the precise mix is unimportant because all three possible reasons are wrong and smack of rank amateurism.
IF THE prime minister and defense minister have authorized the IDF to undertake a major operation in Gaza to rescue the hapless IDF corporal, such a decision can only be viewed as criminally negligent. If the IDF possessed precise information as to the whereabouts of Shalit, it would have long ago inserted a special forces unit, with air and limited ground support, into the vicinity and extricated him.
Israel has carried out far more complex operations in the past and been successful in many of them. The fact that this did not occur strongly suggests that the IDF does not possess precise information as to his whereabouts. It does not logically follow, therefore, that a major ground foray into Gaza is likely to be successful in rescuing Shalit. Moreover, by sending troops in, the prime minister is risking the lives of hundreds of soldiers and the moral requirement to save the life of a captured Israeli soldier must be considered against the possibility that several others might die in the process of trying to save Shalit (who may be killed at the last minute by his captors, as was another soldier, Nachshon Wachsman, who was captured and eventually killed just as his rescuers were breaking into the building in which he was held in October 1994).
If the reason for the operation is to bring about the collapse of the hostile Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government, this reasoning, too, is gravely erroneous and clumsy. Prior to the decision to activate the IDF, the Hamas government was facing extremely serious challenges to its legitimacy and its very capacity to function. Despite some holes in the dike (notably with respect to Russia and Turkey), the international community, led by the United States and much of Europe, was determined to deny Hamas international legitimacy and aid as long as it refused to renounce terrorism and accept Israel's right to exist. This international "non-cooperation" with the Hamas government was leading to extreme difficulties within the PA (with economic pressures enhancing the already growing divisions among Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions) and the beginnings of popular grumbling against Hamas.
These processes, if left to play out fully, could have led either to the eventual collapse of the Hamas government or to a compromise between Fatah and Hamas that would have produced a power-sharing government and forced Hamas to, at least partially, moderate its positions toward Israel (at the very least ending its support for the lobbing of Kassam rockets into Israel).
BY UNDERTAKING this brash move, Israel has united, at least temporarily, the Palestinian body politic and moderated the growing centrifugal forces at play in the Palestinian arena.
Israel's decision to arrest Hamas cabinet ministers and destroy bridges and the power supply to parts of the Gaza Strip will not drive the Palestinian public away from Hamas, but rather create renewed support and legitimacy for Hamas's leadership.
If the government approved the operation because the IDF was able to convince the prime minister and the defense minister that a major ground incursion would succeed in deterring Palestinians from firing rockets into Israel, then Olmert and Peretz should have exhibited leadership and told the IDF that in an age of asymmetric threats, major military incursions rarely succeed in mitigating a terrorist threat.
The Kassam teams and other terrorists must be dealt with through a patient policy of infiltrating terror organizations and undermining them from within, targeted killings based on intelligence and using special forces or aircraft. A policy of stealth and the hunting down of individual terrorists can, given time, seriously undermine terrorist organizations. Major ground incursions, on the other hand, requiring as they do significant logistical preparation, will be noted by the terrorists, giving them time to disappear. Even in the event that Israel had decided to capture and occupy part of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanun, thus putting the Kassams out of range of Sderot, there are no compelling reasons for undertaking major operations in the southern Gaza Strip.
WHATEVER THE reasons behind the decision to launch Operation Summer Rains, the results can be expected to be contrary to Israel's interests.
Firstly, Gilad Shalit is not likely to be rescued, but even if he is, if other IDF soldiers are killed in this operation, this will be of limited consolation to the nation. Secondly, this operation is likely to strengthen support for Hamas and undermine Mahmoud Abbas's attempts to apply the brakes to the Hamas government. It may also lead to a weakening of international efforts to isolate Hamas, as the organization will now be able to portray itself as the "victim of Israeli aggression."
Finally, a major ground foray into Gaza is not likely to stop the Kassams, result in the arrest or killing of key terrorists or really achieve anything except making the IDF appear powerless.
Given the above, Olmert and Peretz are best advised to cut their losses, declare a victory of sorts (by parading any captured terrorists before the media) and withdraw. This operation will be costly to Israel's image and deterrent capabilities, but the longer Israel stays in Gaza, the more serious and long-lasting the damage will be.
The writer is chairman of the Department of Political Science and senior research associate at the Center for Israel Studies, at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He previously served as a senior director at the Israeli National Security Council.