Analysis: Time running out for an escalation Israel's leaders don't really want

The pause can't last long as the IDF is most vulnerable when it's static.

gaza tank aj 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
gaza tank aj 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Very few key players in the Israeli security establishment believed that Hamas would be "broken" during the first week of Operation Cast Lead, which was characterized overwhelmingly by air strikes on Hamas offices, bases, missile launchers, smuggling tunnels, weapons stores and military commanders' homes. In 2006, there was a misplaced reliance on the use of air power to overwhelm Hizbullah in southern Lebanon. That was not the case this time against Hamas. There was a slightly greater expectation, but still no overwhelming belief, that the second week would have the desired effect. Hamas was far from certain that Israel would use ground forces at all, yet those forces have fought very effectively; Hamas has been badly damaged in terms of its rocket-firing and production capability, and many of the Philadelphi Corridor tunnels have been destroyed. But the ground operation to date has been relatively constrained. Hamas's tactic has been to minimize its confrontations with the IDF. Its hope has been to carry out pinpoint acts of violence designed to cause heavy casualties, and to try to kidnap soldiers via sophisticated traps. Its main fighting force is largely intact. And as of Thursday night, it was plainly not crying out for a cease-fire, confident that the international diplomatic clock was working against Israel. Israel's dilemma, therefore, is whether or not to proceed to an intensified ground operation - involving thousands of troops, penetrating far more deeply into Gaza's most dense urban areas. The troops are trained and ready, and the impact on Hamas's fighting capacity would inevitably be far greater - but so would the potential for IDF casualties. As Israel's political leadership agonizes over green-lighting this escalated offensive, there is every indication that Hamas is braced for it. Hamas thinks it can inflict heavy damage on the incoming IDF forces, and thus bolster its standing and its capacity to impose its terms on any cease-fire arrangements. Israel's security chiefs firmly believe Hamas to be wrong; they are confident the IDF can surprise and outmaneuver the Islamists. But that gap in perceptions explains why, after 13 days, Operation Cast Lead appeared to be in some kind of pause mode, treading water. This pause cannot last long. The IDF is most vulnerable when it is static. Having meticulously planned a day-by-day timetable of operations, the IDF needs to hear from its political masters - and hear soon - whether it is moving forward or pulling back. The three key political stewards of this conflict - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - all acknowledge that Hamas is hurt but not beaten. It may have been deterred from further rocket fire, but for how long? It can still fire, albeit with fewer daily rockets into Israel than had been feared. No mechanism is yet in place to ensure it cannot quickly rearm, as Hizbullah did after the Second Lebanon War, through tunnels it would quickly rebuild under the Philadelphi Corridor. All three leaders want to avoid the next logical phase of the military offensive if there is a reasonable chance that satisfactory arrangements to stop the smuggling and maintain the IDF's freedom of action can be obtained some other way, presumably via the French-Egyptian diplomatic track. Only Hamas, cocky, playing down its losses and anything but troubled by the deaths of Palestinians, is disinclined to sanction any such arrangement. There are some disagreements within the Israeli leadership troika, which it is to be fervently hoped are unrelated to any narrow electoral considerations. Livni, according to some sources, is said to be more inclined to contemplate a unilateral cease-fire if no arrangement can be reached, and to rely on the heightened deterrence achieved so far and the IDF's potential to strike again if the rocket fire resumes. Barak and Olmert are said to be opposed to a unilateral halt. Olmert said on Thursday that the operation had not yet achieved its goals. Barak is again believed to be ready for a "humanitarian time-out" which might lead to a lasting cease-fire. Hamas is riven with disputes, and internal communication is obviously anything but straightforward. Some Gaza-based Hamas leaders are said to have sought immunity from Israeli attack so that they can participate in talks on a possible cease-fire in Gaza. But if Hamas remains intransigent over the weekend, signs are that a reluctant political echelon will order a reluctant IDF leadership to send a confident and well-trained ground force of many thousands to confront Hamas's fighters as never before. Israel would do so knowing that the international "window of opportunity" is narrowing, that the UN Security Council is getting impatient, and that anything resembling Tuesday's shelling of an UNRWA school that causes heavy civilian casualties would be terminal. Beyond that phase would lie a full-scale invasion to overthrow Hamas and reoccupy the Gaza Strip, involving the participation of many tens of thousands of reservists. This was emphatically not a declared goal of Operation Cast Lead, not least because there is no clarity whatsoever as to how the ensuing vacuum could or would be filled.