A good start... to a bad ending

Olmert, Barak are attempting to 'manage' the conflict with Hamas. That approach will lead to failure.

gaza explosion air strike 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
gaza explosion air strike 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
For the hundreds of thousands of Israelis within range of the rockets that Hamas and its junior partners in terror have been firing for more than seven years now - thousands of missiles in total - the aerial assault that the Israeli air force waged on the Gaza Strip on Saturday was a lot of things: a surprise, a relief, a welcome change from an irresponsible and cowardly policy of restraint that only encouraged the terrorists and abandoned Israeli civilians to their fate. One thing it was not, though, was a solution. I say that not because I believe in the tired old adage that "there is no military solution in Gaza" - I don't - but because the prime minister and defense minister have said as much themselves. IN DEFINING the goals of this (ridiculously named) Operation Cast Lead, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak stated that they were seeking an end to the rocket fire that has pummeled the South and an end to weapons smuggling from Egypt. Yet these are things that Hamas can not give - at least, not openly, not in response to military pressure and not for any significant period. Simply put, Hamas needs to commit these acts, because fighting Israel is what the organization is all about. One might as well ask a frog not to jump. Although the army is now calling up reservists to support the effort, there is no reason to believe that this operation will be anything but limited in scope and duration. All indications thus far are that Israel wants Hamas hurt, but still in place, so that it can come to an agreement on how to live together. What Olmert and Barak are attempting, essentially, is to "manage" Hamas, to establish a sort of "understanding" in which both sides remain committed to the other's destruction but do as little as possible to antagonize each other. IF THAT seems familiar, it's because it was precisely Israel's policy toward Hizbullah for years. For much of the past two-and-a-half decades, Israel and Hizbullah observed a sort of de facto truce in which neither side acted beyond certain bounds of aggression, or minimized the scale and arena of confrontation between the two. All that changed, though, in 2006. In contrast to Ariel Sharon, who retaliated against Hizbullah for kidnapping Israeli soldiers but then reverted to the status quo and negotiated for their return, Olmert responded to the kidnapping of soldiers in a cross-border raid by declaring the crippling of Hizbullah and "changing the rules of the game" once and for all as his goals for the Second Lebanon War. With the poor result from that war still reverberating in the public consciousness, much of the talk since Saturday morning's bombing raids has centered on "the lessons of the Second Lebanon War" and whether Olmert and the defense establishment have learned them. The limited goals of this campaign, everyone seems to believe, show that those lessons have been learned. But they have not. That campaign was misguided, and this one appears to be, too. HIZBULLAH WAS a formidable foe, a well-trained, well-armed, well-funded guerrilla force. It was deeply entrenched in difficult terrain, across a large area, with a sizable territory at its back to which it could retreat. It was a small player in a larger state structure that, despite serious divisions and difficulties, was nonetheless part of the community of nations and functioned as such. It had on its border a large, cooperative and supportive neighbor that eagerly transferred weapons, funds and credibility to the Islamic Resistance. In these circumstances, destroying Hizbullah - without a massive war that would have ultimately destroyed Lebanon as a state and required a full-scale war with Syria as well - was an impossible goal. "Managing" the conflict with Hizbullah was the right approach, and abandoning it was the first of several crucial mistakes that Olmert made. In Gaza and Hamas, however, Israel faces a very different situation. Despite swelling from a total of a few hundred men under arms just a few years ago to as many as 15,000 now, Hamas remains light-years away from Hizbullah as a fighting force. Its training, its arms and its funding are less than what Hizbullah had in 1996, to say nothing of Hizbullah's position in 2006. FURTHER, HAMAS stands on a comparatively tiny patch of land, flat and exposed, with nothing but the sea at its back. It is alone in ruling its territory, and its rule is neither effective nor recognized as legitimate, nor even fully autonomous in the community of nations. On its border stands an uncooperative, perturbed neighbor that wants nothing more than to be rid of it and of the Hamas thugs who sprouted from the Muslim Brotherhood movement that poses the greatest threat to the Cairo regime. In these circumstances, destroying Hamas is a goal that, although difficult, is feasible. Targeting the top echelon of political leaders such as Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar, as well as at least half of the Hamas cadres, might be a tricky proposition, but it is ultimately the only correct strategy. "MANAGING" THE conflict with Hamas, on the other hand, is the wrong approach, and its failure is inevitable. Seeking an "understanding" with Hamas perpetuates the problem at the benefit of only a brief period of quiet, allows and encourages the organization to continue to grow and to fire more rockets at us and prevents any real progress toward a two-state solution by paralyzing Mahmoud Abbas and his inferior forces. What Israel is currently trying to do in Gaza, it should have tried in Lebanon two years ago, and what Israel attempted against Hizbullah then, it should be trying against Hamas now. Until that realization sinks in in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the achievements of Operation Cast Lead will remain just a good beginning... to a sorry ending, which the weary residents of Sderot and Ashkelon have seen coming from kilometers away. The writer is an editor at The Jerusalem Post.