As I noted when I returned from a trip to Israel last month, any peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians is hopeless as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza and continues its rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. It was only a matter of time before Israel took the perfectly justifiable actions it has been taking over the past few days to neutralize the rocket fire from Hamas and like-minded terrorist groups.
But over the next few days and weeks, there are a number of key questions to consider.
The most crucial is how effective Israel’s military operation is in weakening the terrorists’ rocket-launching capability. In 2006, after weeks of bombing and inept leadership by Ehud Olmert and then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Israel failed to accomplish much in its actions against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Israeli military officials have spent the last few years trying to fix what went wrong during that operation. One of the problems was that the Israeli military had been repurposed toward the type of fighting required in the West Bank during the Second Intifada in the early part of the decade, and wasn’t as adequately prepared for a conflict with Hezbollah. So, when all of the smoke clears in Gaza, the Israelis will have to assess whether their government and military did in fact learn a lot from the mistakes of the Lebanon War. Haaretz reported this morning that Israeli air strikes killed four members of Islamic Jihad, including its senior commander. The paper also noted that, “[t]he strikes have driven Hamas leaders into hiding and appear to have gravely damaged the organization’s ability to launch rockets, but barrages continued. Sirens warning of incoming rockets sent Israelis scrambling for cover throughout the day.” If Israel is able to severely weaken Hamas, it actually would do more than anything to create the conditions in which peace would be possible between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The other important question is how the operation will affect Israeli elections scheduled for February. If the Kadima government is able to orchestrate a successful military operation, than it could boost the party’s chances in the elections, and help Tzipi Livni become the new prime minister. If, however, it’s another bungled operation, it would strengthen the hand of the Benyamin Netanyahu-lead Likud. Either way, the conflict could strengthen his chances by bolstering his central argument that the peace process is not currently realistic.
Hamas, which receives backing from Iran along with Hezbollah, is seen as one of Iran’s means of retaliating in the event of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. This was clearly another calculation in Israel’s Gaza operation, and it should be interesting to monitor how Iran reacts to these events. Iranian hard-line clerics are signing up volunteers to fight in Gaza and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that, “All true believers in the world of Islam and Palestinian fighters are duty-bound to defend the defenseless women and children in Gaza Strip, and those giving their lives in carrying out such a divine duty are martyrs.”
It will also be interesting to watch how the Gaza operation affects the internal Palestinian conflict between Hamas and Fatah. The two groups were poised for a confrontation on January 9, when Hamas argues that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s term ends — a view rejected by Abbas and his allies.
And of course, this will be an early test for the Obama administration. How will he react when he can no longer hide behind saying that “there is only one president at a time”?