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ANALYSIS: Timing of Israeli invasion limited Obama’s options

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in a bid to destroy archenemy Hamas before President-elect Barack Obama takes office Tuesday, preventing the new president from negotiating with a militant group that would no longer exist, Middle East analysts say.

Unlike President Bush, Obama advisers have talked of a willingness to talk with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group who violently took control of the 25-mile-long Gaza Strip in June 2007.

With Hamas destroyed, Israel hopes the international community will agree on new Palestinian leadership in Gaza modeled after the authority in the West Bank that negotiates with Tel Aviv.

“I think the timing was important,” said Robert Springborg, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

“They wanted Bush to be in the White House when they made their move, and, secondly, I think they wanted to pre-empt the incoming president,” said Mr. Springborg, who ran the Middle East Institute at the University of London. “He had not absolutely and utterly ruled out dealing with Hamas. This may pre-empt any possibility of bringing Hamas to any negotiations. If there is a fait accompli that Hamas has been destroyed, what is the use of talking to them?”

Israel began the new war Dec. 27 with air and sea missile strikes on Hamas military, police and administrative infrastructure. It sent ground troops in Jan. 10 to take control of regions outside Gaza City, but declared a cease-fire over the weekend.

Israel's ostensible invasion rationale was to stop Hamas' renewed rocket attacks on villages in southern Israel. But in fact, Mr. Springborg and other analysts argue, Israel harbors broader strategic goals aimed at inserting new rulers in Gaza.

“If Israel succeeds in castrating Hamas, then there is a chance that a more moderate and reasonable government can take shape for the Palestinian people,” said Bart Bechtel, a former CIA clandestine officer in the region who now teaches at Henley-Putnam University.

Added Mr. Springborg, “I think what we're going to see is Israel putting a Palestinian authority in place at least on the border and then broaden it out from there, much as was done in the West Bank. Use this authority to restore order and as conduit to funnel money into Gaza.”

When Sunni Muslim Hamas in the south, or Shi'ite-led Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, engage in war with Israel, U.S. officials always suspect that Iran is somehow pulling the strings. Tehran supports both groups with smuggled weapons, including Katyusha rockets. All three share a common goal: the end of the Israeli state.

“Hamas is not only a proxy, but a pawn of Iran,” Mr. Bechtel said. “Iran continues to strive to be the dominant Muslim power in the world and uses unwitting Sunni stooges such as Hamas to weaken all who oppose her. Iran believes it can, through these wars of attrition against Israel, weaken all who oppose Iran, including the secular Muslim states.”

Sallai Meridor, Israel's ambassador to Washington, told the National Press Club on Dec. 30: “What you see in Gaza is largely Iranian-made. It's guided by Iran. It's funded largely by Iran. It's trained by Iran. Many hundreds, close to a thousand terrorists from Gaza were getting training either in Iran or by Hezbollah.”

Israel is conducting an air-war first, ground-war second battle plan made famous in 1991 Operation Desert Storm. Whether it has met its objectives is not clear at this point, but there have been glaring mistakes.

“Israel is trying to push back the rocket belt and destroy the rocket-launching positions, and they are also trying to break the back of Hamas and their supporters,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former head of the Army War College. “But I am disappointed in their operational tactical skills.”

Gen. Scales said that blunders such as bombing a United Nations compound that included a school pushes world opinion against Israel and stymies its objective of separating Hamas from the populace.

“It speaks to the difficulty of taking down a military and command-and-control entity with firepower alone, and No. 2, the difficulty of doing all of this without leaving the perception you are creating civilian casualties,” Gen. Scales said. “God knows, it's tough, but these guys have had six months of preparation. They're having a tough time right now. Even given their intelligence dominance they have in the region, it shows what a tough time they are having.”

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel, which publishes a periodic war recap, said the air force has attacked 1,300 targets in 1,500 jet and helicopter sorties.

Israel last launched an incursion against its enemies in 2006, when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conducted an air war on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. But the operation fell well short of its stated objective of ridding the area of Hezbollah fighters.

This time, Tel Aviv is more cautious in stating its endgame.

At the National Press Club, Mr. Meridor declined to say when the operation might end or its specific objectives beyond stopping the rocket attacks. The hope, he said, is “to create conditions where a new equation could be created, because the current situation, as I said, where on the one side, Israelis are under fire and, on the other side, people are allowed to go uninterrupted making the fire - this cannot continue.”

Foreign Policy magazine reported that during an appearance Jan. 6, at George Washington University, Mr. Meridor said, “We have no grand political scheme.”

In this operation, the IDF has a big geographic advantage. Lebanon shares a long eastern border with Syria, from which Hezbollah can obtain arms and to which it retreated until the air strikes ended.

The Gaza Strip, on the other hand, is a relatively narrow stretch of land virtually surrounded by Israeli sea and land power, except for a small border with Egypt. Israel's combined checkpoints, sea patrols and satellite surveillance can cut off Hamas from its allies. Hamas' security force is estimated at 20,000; its weapons largely confined to small arms, grenade launchers, rockets and short-range missiles.

“Hamas and Hezbollah are profoundly different beasts,” write Thomas Donnelly and Danielle Pletka, analysts at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. “While neither is really the 'non-state actor' as popularly understood, Hezbollah is a much more robust and statelike organization, while Hamas is only a notch above its roots as a terrorist group, and has failed to capitalize on its control of quasi-independent Gaza to organize or modernize.”

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