Debate over the merits of continuing the war against Hamas raged this week among Israel’s leadership and political scientists, with one group believing the war has achieved its goals and the other believing a decisive victory is needed.
But there appeared to be consensus that the Israeli assault will end on or before Tuesday when Barack Obama is sworn in as America’s 44th president.
“I don’t think it will go on longer than Tuesday,” said Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA and a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.
“The Israeli government is not really providing a clear picture [of the end game] in part because it itself is divided and does not know how far to go,” he said.
“Israeli newspapers like Haaretz are very strongly in favor of ending the war now, but the Israeli public is very supportive because Israelis are under missile attack.
“The problem is how to end it, something that has been a problem in many Israeli wars. Usually it is because the U.S. says that is enough. Israel believes Obama would say end it [if the war continued after he took office].”
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said he too believes the war will end by Tuesday because of international pressure and a belief among Israeli government officials that little more can be gained in battle.
“But I disagree,” he said. “We don’t now have an unequivocal victory, and therefore more pressure must be put on Hamas. We have to have pictures of Hamas terrorists coming out of their bunkers with their hands in the air and of Gilad Shalit coming home.”
Shalit is the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas and other terrorist groups in June 2006. It is believed that he has been held captive in Gaza since then.
Although Israel has threatened to launch a third phase of its war against Hamas that would involve ground troops moving into major Gaza cities, it refrained from doing so pending Egyptian efforts to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.
“I think Hamas understands very well that the Israeli government is reluctant to go on [with that phase of the war],” Inbar said. “As a result, it has starting procrastinating. If they can end this affair by saying they resisted the great Israeli army, they would be like Hezbollah in 2006.”
Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group in Lebanon, claimed victory after its war with Israel in the summer of 2006.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he too believed the war is coming to an end.
“The Israel Defense Forces have done about as much as they can in Gaza in terms of going after the people who are running the rocket import business and the tunnel building business [through which to smuggle weapons],” he said. “There is no question [the war] will have a long-term impact if they try to revive the tunnels. Getting the weapons from Iran, into the tunnels, reassembling them and getting them ready for launch was a pretty sophisticated operation.”
Steinberg pointed out that although Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants the war to continue, Defense Minister Ehud Barak would like to see a one-week humanitarian cease-fire. Under that scenario, Israeli troops would remain where they are while diplomatic efforts to arrange a cease-fire with Hamas were speeded up.
“They would stay out of harm’s way and not withdraw,” he said. “They would figure out the optimum deployment for our forces, depending on what damage was done to Hamas and what the terms of the cease-fire are. If Israel has done as much damage as it appears to have done, they can afford to stay in well guarded areas and if necessary do forays after specific targets.
“If Israel did not like the terms of the cease-fire agrement, it would be free to resume military operations. Hamas, Egypt, the U.S. and the United Nations would not want that, so Israel would be able to insist on a more robust agreement on arms smuggling.”
Any permanent cease-fire agreement would undoubtedly be nailed down on Obama’s watch, which Steinberg said would mean that his team would be involved in the agreement.
But Inbar questioned how much Hamas was willing to give in if it is able to emerge from this battle claiming victory.
“They should feel the noose around their neck and they don’t feel it today,” he said. “We have to dispel the myth that we are afraid to go into the cities. We should go into the refugee camps and clean out the area. It would accomplish a lot and I think the Israeli people are ready to pay the price. There’s a misconception that Israelis have a casualty phobia. It’s not true if it is accompanied by victory.”
But Moshe Maoz, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the destruction of Hamas would mean Israel would have to occupy the Gaza Strip and end up controlling its 1.5 million residents “who are hungry, angry” and capable of more terrorism.
He said the “solution to the smuggling problem is in the hands of the Egyptians,” who are against a proposal to put foreign troops on their soil to help end the arms smuggling.
“Israel has to deal with Hamas to work out any agreement and it is doing that through Egypt, which again puts Egypt in an important position,” Maoz pointed out.
Asked about Inbar’s belief that Israel must achieve a decisive victory over Hamas, Maoz called it “wishful thinking” similar to that of opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Israel could do it, but at a very high cost,” he said. “Or it could go for a cease-fire solution that might achieve the aim that Hamas does not fire [rockets] into Israel any longer and stops the smuggling of weapons.”