Diplomacy: War and piecemeal

Confused about Israel's objectives in Gaza - or the purpose of Rice's visit? So, it appears, is the government.

rice olmert 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
rice olmert 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Throughout a tense and dramatic week - a week of battles in Jabaliya and Grad missiles falling on Ashkelon - the government's leaders have repeatedly deflected questions about Israel's tactics and strategy in the Gaza Strip by saying they don't want to give the enemy any foreknowledge of what the country will do. "Everything is possible: aerial and ground raids, special operations and other operations; everything is up for discussions," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday. "We will not be revealing what we are considering, or when, because we don't want to give our enemies the chance to prepare," he continued. Fair enough. But there is one collateral problem: Not only is the enemy confused; so are the country's citizens. If asked what their government was trying to do in Gaza this week, most people would probably say the policy was aimed at protecting the citizens of the South and stopping the rocket fire. But follow-up questions - whether Israel was trying to topple Hamas; whether Israel wanted to go back into Gaza; whether Israel was aiming not only to stop the rocket fire, but also end the massive arms buildup there - would probably be met with befuddled looks, a scratch of the head, and a goofy "I dunno." Because the country really does not know, and has not been squarely told. Or, rather, it has been told so many different and often contradictory things, that it doesn't know exactly what to believe. For instance, on the issue of toppling Hamas, consider the following dual - and dueling - messages. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who all of a sudden decided to be interviewed this week on both Israel and Army Radio after months of not making his voice heard beyond a short sound bite here and there, said Sunday that Israel needed to brace for an escalation. "We will continue our action with all our strength, and we need to prepare for escalation, because a broad ground operation is real and tangible," Barak told Israel Radio. In the Army Radio interview he said that one aim of any broad incursion into Gaza would be to "weaken the Hamas rule, in the right circumstances even bring it down." But Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, painted much more modest objectives for Israel's military operations during a briefing he gave the foreign press on Monday. Asked about the country's goals in Gaza, Regev said, "Israel and the international community share a common political goal, and that is to see the legitimate Palestinian government, the government of the PA, reassert its authority in the Gaza Strip. That is also the road map. If I said that Israel supports the PA government re-asserting authority in Gaza, that would be a truism ... The aims of the Israeli military operations in Gaza are more modest. They are to protect the population of the South and to contain the threat that Hamas poses." No word there about actively toppling the Hamas government. There was also nothing about regime-toppling in the extremely vague statement issued after the security cabinet's meeting Wednesday, where the overall objectives of Israel's actions in Gaza were discussed. The cabinet, according to the statement released after the meeting, empowered the government to "act continuously and systematically" in order to achieve a number of goals, including "to strike at the Hamas regime in Gaza." Does that mean bring it down militarily? Or does it mean - as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said throughout the week - to weaken the organization? Impossible to tell. Olmert himself added to the confusion when he said in the security cabinet that: "Our forces are not operating because we want to, but because we have to. If they stop shooting at our civilian population, we would not have to respond." That, as one senior government source pointed out, is a very significant and telling statement - essentially Olmert signaling that quiet will beget quiet, and that if the rocket fire ceases, Israel's military operations would cease as well. But if that's the case, if Hamas does stop the firing onto the western Negev, and if Israel - in return - stops its military activity, then what of Hamas's military buildup? How is that dealt with? And the military buildup is as much of a concern to the defense establishment as the rockets, if not more so. Throughout the week, government ministers and spokesmen - including Livni and Regev - seemed to be preparing world opinion for harsh military actions against Hamas by referring to it no longer as just a terrorist organization, but rather as a militia or small army. "The goal is to weaken Hamas militarily and politically, and we are doing this simultaneously," Livni told foreign diplomats on Monday. "I mean, we need to attack when they try to attack us ... We also need to address the buildup of Hamas and the fact that the Philadelphi Corridor [between Gaza and Egypt] is being used in order to smuggle weapons. As you saw, the weapons which are being smuggled through the Philadelphi Corridor have become more and more problematic. As you can see, we are talking in terms of a terrorist organization, but we are actually dealing with a small army, a small militia, in the Gaza Strip." Regev, during his briefing, introduced a new phrase into the lexicon - Hamas's military machine. He repeated it on numerous occasions during his presentation, and the choice of these words was obviously not happenstance. Rather, nuance matters, and calling Hamas a "small army," or referring to it as a "military machine," seemed calculated to pave the ground for gaining international legitimization of a concerted campaign to derail that machine, to defeat that army. BUT THAT was all before the arrival of US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday, coming into the country much like a bell sounding at the end of a particularly bloody round of a boxing match. Just before Rice arrived, Israel pulled its troops out of the northern Gaza Strip, ending Operation "Hot Winter." And soon after she met with Olmert, Barak and Livni, Jerusalem's strategy seemed to shift from Israel taking on this military machine, this small army, to once again letting the Egyptians give it all another whirl. If the Egyptians could just stop the arms smuggling into Gaza, if the Egyptians could broker an agreement whereby the Palestinian Authority and EU monitors would once against be on the border, then there might not be a need to fight this small army after all. To that end, Rice dispatched her top Middle East hand Undersecretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch to Cairo on Wednesday for a series of discussions. Maybe, just maybe, the Egyptians could broker a package deal, Welch's mission seemed to indicate. The security cabinet met while Rice was still here and did not okay any major incursion, giving Welch some time. And, of course, Olmert made his remark that if the rockets don't fall, Israel won't respond. Olmert's statement stood in contrast to other comments both he and other ministers and government spokesmen made all week long about Israel regaining the initiative, changing the equation, dictating the flow of events, keeping Hamas guessing and on the run. Regev summed up that thinking like this: "It is very important that we keep the pressure on the Hamas military machine. So Israel will continue to use military force in a surgical way. We have a combination of forces we can use. We don't have to be stuck in one particular type of military operation. I think it is very important that we remain very flexible tactically. We must retain the initiative. We must try to surprise the Hamas military machine." In other words, Israel will initiate, not only respond. But, again that was pre-Rice. After Rice, Olmert's mantra was quiet will beget quiet, which - essentially - means that Hamas, not Israel, will determine the course of events. "If the Kassam rockets are stopped, we will not act. There will be no excuse to do so," one senior government official with his hand very much on the pulse of the government's thinking said at the end of the week. "If the Kassams continue, we will see more of the same small operations we have been seeing." And what of Hamas arms buildup - the arms smuggling from Gaza? "There is a lot of concern about that," the official said. "But if the rockets stop, there will not be an excuse for an attack. Look, Syria is building up, so is Hizbullah, and we are not attacking them. We will have to live with it." And, of course, deal with it in a piecemeal manner, one bloody round at a time.