JERUSALEM – Israel’s Gaza offensive was launched at a time when it would not harm relations with the U.S. and could perhaps benefit leading politicians six weeks before a general election in Israel.
Israel’s leadership insists that the punishing assault against Gaza’s Hamas rulers is motivated purely by security considerations. Some experts said launching the assault now was unavoidable, in order to restore Israel’s power of deterrence and halt a steady weapons buildup by an Iranian-backed foe on Israel’s doorstep.
They note that Hamas’ decision not to renew a truce beyond Dec. 19 forced Israel’s hand.
Israel’s deadliest-ever offensive on Palestinian soil does come at a time when it’s likely to cause minimum friction with the White House. President George W. Bush’s is in his final month in office.
Some Washington analysts say Israel may have timed the airstrikes, in part, to prevent the situation in Gaza from becoming President-elect Barack Obama’s first major foreign policy crisis when he takes office Jan. 20. Yet the offensive could also undermine any short-term initiative the incoming administration might try.
In Israel, a successful outcome would certainly boost the electoral prospects of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who are competing for the job of prime minister against hard-line opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been calling for tough action against militants and Iran, which is Hamas’ patron.
However, Barak and Livni could get hurt politically if the offensive fails to achieve its objective.
“If by the end of the operation, the general sentiment is that Israel has once again failed to meet its goals, if rockets continue to land … the public will turn its anger at Barak and Livni, and power will drop like a ripe fruit into Netanyahu’s lap,” the Haaretz daily wrote in an editorial.
Netanyahu has been careful not to criticize his rivals. “We are all united,” Netanyahu told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. “There is no opposition and no coalition on this.”
He said he has suspended his campaign for now. “There will be enough time for politics later,” he said.
Militants in Gaza, a coastal strip on Israel’s southwest flank, have been firing rockets across the border since 2001. Israeli figures show that between January and the end of November, about 2,500 rockets and mortar shells crashed into Israel, killing eight people and causing a public clamor for the government to send Israel’s vaunted military in to halt the barrage.
An unwritten truce between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, which took effect in June, brought some respite. It began to unravel in November, when Israeli soldiers entered Gaza to destroy a tunnel that the army said could have been used in a cross-border raid. In response, Palestinians launched a fresh wave of rockets at Israel. On Dec. 19, six months to the day since it went into effect, Hamas formally declared the truce over and warned that it would take action.
In the days that followed, rockets thudded faster and deeper into Israel, and Israeli diplomats launched a campaign to prepare world opinion for a military response.
Barry Rubin, an expert on Israeli security policy, said the harsh Israeli response was inevitable.
“When someone says, ‘I’m ending the cease-fire and I’m going to war with you,’ you take that seriously,” he said. “It’s like why did the U.S. attack Afghanistan? Because al-Qaida attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11.”
Emad Falluji, a former Hamas leader now in a Gaza-based think tank, said he believes Hamas did want to renew the truce but felt that Israel failed to keep its side of the bargain by keeping Gaza’s borders sealed.
“Israel didn’t want to give Hamas anything in return for the cease-fire, which was effectively free,” he said.
Falluji said Hamas had calculated that Israel would not take major military action so close to its own elections and the start of Obama’s term.
“I don’t think it expected this kind of destruction,” he said. “They were gambling on a new U.S. administration to revive some kind of dialogue, they were gambling on time.”
Some Palestinians believe the assault on Hamas was also meant to shore up Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the movement’s bitter rival. Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas in a violent takeover in June 2007.
Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, says it will not recognize Abbas as president once his four-year term ends in January. Hamas’ threat changes little on the ground, since Abbas would remain in power in the West Bank in any case. However, it could further reduce his stature and legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians, particularly after a year of peace talks with Israel produced no tangible results.
A senior Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with Defense Ministry regulations, said that Barak had been against a major military offensive almost to the end and only finally approved the operation on Thursday.
The official said Israeli military decision-makers came to the conclusion that the truce was not going to be extended after Barak’s envoy, Amos Gilad, returned dispirited from talks with Egyptian mediators in Cairo and Israeli troops shot and killed three Hamas gunmen as they were planting explosives on the Gaza border, sparking a renewed hail of rockets.
“That’s the only reason, nothing to do with elections nothing to do with anything,’ Rubin said. “It was a decision taken reluctantly but, eventually, decisively. That’s it, that’s the story.”
Editor’s note: Steve Weizman has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1985.