Analyze This: Bye-bye Bush, hello (again) Gaza

Hamas didn't get the memo not to spoil the festivities.

George W. Bush is gone, and now that we are done with the pleasantly platitudinous but policy-deficient speech-making; the picturesque photo ops for the US president and his fervent admirer Prime Minister Ehud Olmert atop Masada and at the Shrine of the Book; and the homo-erotic dance interpretations of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" inappropriately presented in a Jerusalem gathering of world leaders - it's time for Israel to get back to business. And the business at hand is Gaza. The government may have tried to put that slightly pressing matter on hold this week, so as not to spoil the festivities in the capital centered around the Bush visit and President Shimon Peres's gala Facing Tomorrow conference, but apparently Hamas did not get that memo. Utilizing one of the precious modified Grad-model Katyusha rockets in its arsenal, the radical Islamic group sent a clear message to Ashkelon that the Gaza situation is not one that is going to wait until the Annapolis-process "vision" of a Palestinian state - one that in no way will resemble "Swiss cheese" - inspires Gazans to somehow throw off their well-armed radical Islamic rulers and return Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction to power there. The Olmert government is now confronting two diametrically opposed strategies in contending with the Gaza threat. Next week Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is scheduled to return to continue discussions about a possible cease-fire agreement that will include Hamas and Gaza's other terrorist groups. However, with the 60th anniversary celebrations and the Bush visit now behind us, the security establishment will be pushing even harder for a large-scale military operation aimed at the Hamas military apparatus, especially its Grad rocket arsenal and a command infrastructure that has enabled it to carry out ever-longer rocket strikes and increasingly sophisticated attacks on the Gaza crossing points. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking at the Facing Tomorrow conference Thursday night after returning straight from a visit to Ashkelon, made clear that from his viewpoint a military operation is only a matter of time. If Israel's luck runs out, and a Hamas rocket attack results in multiple fatalities rather than the individual deaths of the past week, the government will politically have no choice but to mount that response sooner rather than later. Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, still strongly committed to a negotiating process with the Palestinian Authority that would stop dead in its tracks in the event of such an operation, would clearly prefer to put off that option as long as possible. That doesn't necessarily mean accepting the cease-fire option, however, despite the breathing room it would clearly give them to carry on the post-Annapolis talks. For one thing, they would need Suleiman to deliver at least two significant pieces for any agreement with Hamas. The first, to placate the security establishment, must be some kind of secure arrangements at the Egyptian-Gaza border to prevent Hamas from bringing in more Iranian-supplied military equipment, especially pre-manufactured rockets (or their components) of the type that hit Ashkelon - and may soon have the capability to reach Ashdod or Beersheba. The second, to make a cease-fire deal palatable to the public, would be the inclusion of Gilad Schalit in a concurrent prisoner-swap, a move Hamas reportedly objects to, given the current parameters of Israel's counter-offer. Whether Suleiman has the capability to really deliver any concessions at all from Hamas on these key points, or is largely just going through the motions on the basis of wishful thinking, or to lessen any blame placed on Cairo for the deteriorating situation in Gaza, is itself an open question. And even if the Egyptian could broker this deal any way close to those terms, Jerusalem still has good reason to be wary of it. Although any cease-fire would be framed by the government simply as a humanitarian arrangement to provide relief for the Israeli communities outside Gaza, and the Palestinians within it, such a deal would inevitably be interpreted abroad, especially in Europe, as a weakening of the current international diplomatic boycott of Hamas. Even negotiating via Suleiman has increased criticism abroad from those who oppose the boycott, on the grounds that if Israel is now in fact "talking" with Hamas, why shouldn't everybody else? It would also likely cause discomfort among some of Israel's strongest supporters in Washington, where the issue of dialogue with Hamas has entered into the US presidential campaign. Republican candidate John McCain recently made hay of the fact that Hamas spokesman Ahmad Yousef recently expressed support for Democratic candidate Barack Obama. In response, and despite having unequivocally backed the ban on Hamas, Obama also felt compelled this week to drop Middle East expert Robert Malley from his list of official advisers after it was revealed the former US diplomat has continued to maintain contacts with the Islamic group. This is the background behind Obama's testy response yesterday to the line from Bush's speech to the Knesset in which the president said "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all alone" - which the Democratic candidate, not unreasonably, interpreted as a personal attack on him. The irony of Israel possibly reaching any arrangement with Hamas, while talking with the group remains a campaign issue in the US, is not the kind of political headache that Olmert needs on his plate right now. Nor, for that matter, is the international pressure that will surely result if the IDF enters Gaza in force, and the response by Abbas is to again break off the negotiations with Jerusalem. Yet doing nothing - or more accurately, relying on limited military actions that look increasingly ineffective in stopping the Hamas rockets from claiming Israeli lives - is also no option. Ehud Olmert had his week to enjoy himself with at least one person ready to publicly declare his belief that the prime minister is "an honest man." But now Bush has moved on - and Olmert has to make some difficult choices on Gaza before he too finds himself gone, baby, gone.