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The Meaning of Ceasefire By: P. David Hornik
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Tuesday, Day 18 of Operation Cast Lead, Israeli chief of staff Gabi Ashkenasi said that “we have made many achievements in damaging Hamas and its infrastructure, its regime and its military wing, but there is still much to be done.” It was also reported that “the IDF does not believe that Hamas is on the verge of collapse…the group has been seriously weakened, but the assumption…is that [it] can continue to survive at its current level for several months.”

The same ambiguity about the war’s goals that in its early days seemed a wise tactic still prevails, and by now it appears a chronic reflection of Israel’s top three political leaders’ disunity and lack of a clear concept of where the war is heading.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday that “we are…monitoring developments on the Egyptian [ceasefire] initiative, but the fighting goes on and the IDF is continuing to apply force.” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly opposes a ceasefire agreement with Hamas and instead favors taming it through Israeli deterrence. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to share Barak’s openness to a truce.

Amid the fog, though, a few things have emerged clearly by now. One is that Israel is not going to win the war in any clear-cut sense. In the context of Operation Cast Lead, winning means destroying Hamas and/or reoccupying part or all of Gaza. The Olmert government is not going to do either.

It’s not going to do the first because the entire international community, including the Bush administration, is now united in the push for a ceasefire, and also because the Olmert government isn’t prepared to shoulder the possible cost to Israel. With Israeli forces in Gaza so far “mostly…deployed on the periphery of the densely populated areas and…only now beginning to venture deeper,” the IDF reportedly “believes that Hamas fighters are holed up deeper inside the urban centers and that is where they have built up their resistance…. when the IDF moves deeper inside, the fighting will pick up.”

In other words, with some of Hamas’s 20,000 fighters having been killed, some having deserted, and most still active, with the nastiest and bloodiest part of the fighting still ahead, and with Israeli national elections still scheduled in less than a month, the Olmert government is hardly likely—especially when it hasn’t formulated clear goals that would justify the losses that may be entailed—to unleash the IDF’s full force against Hamas instead of seeking, or acquiescing to, a political way out of the conflict.

As for reoccupying even parts of Gaza—the main candidates being the Philadelphi Route at the Gaza-Egypt border and the rocket-launching zone in northern Gaza—the Olmert government seems even less likely to do so. For one thing, the international community would rather assign Arabs, Turks—or just about anyone but Israel—the responsibility of stopping the arms smuggling at the border. For another, a reoccupation would mean the Olmert government would go into the elections having reversed the very mission and rationale—continuing the supposed success of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza with further unilateral withdrawals—with which it came into office.

Does all this mean the war is a waste? Not necessarily.

Even if the war ends inconclusively and with another set of dubious, ineffective “monitors” lining up along the Philadelphi Route, it will likely leave the impression that the IDF prevailed in the fighting and had regained the prowess and élan that the 2006 war in Lebanon seemed to put in question. The psychological effects of that, both on Israel and its enemies or potential enemies, can only be healthy. That positive side is enhanced by polls finding that the war hasn’t altered the Israeli public’s disposition to elect a tougher, Likud-led government in February.

Two issues, though, have to be added. One is Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas in Gaza since being kidnapped in June 2006. Israel is united in expecting the war to result in Shalit’s release, in whatever shape, and the Olmert government knows it. A situation in which the Olmert government demands his release as a condition for a ceasefire, and Hamas refuses, has the potential to prolong the war into a bloody showdown.

The other is Iran. Speculation that the war is Iran’s ploy to divert attention from its progress toward the bomb is strengthened by the apparent eagerness of Hamas—with its refusal in December to renew the ceasefire and dogged, escalated shelling of Israeli communities—to draw Israel militarily into Gaza. The notion that Iran thereby succeeded in stopping the lame-duck Olmert government from attacking it is more questionable. But in that regard, too, an upgraded Israeli military profile could have a positive significance.

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Beersheva. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/. He can be reached at pdavidh2001@yahoo.com.

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