By William Beecher
Viewed through a strategic prism, the Israeli military campaign against Hamas in Gaza may be much more ambitious than appears in the public dialogue.
Publicly, the Israelis say they must halt the firing of rockets aimed at their population centers. This requires destroying rocket factories, arms depots, and launch sites. An ancillary objective is to demolish tunnels from Gaza that allow gunmen to sneak into Israel, and tunnels from Sinai that allow fresh weapons and other key supplies into Gaza.
Were it not for the Iron Dome air defense system, the 1,500 rockets that have already been fired from Gaza would by now have caused hundreds if not thousands of casualties.
The Israelis have felt forced to stage a Gaza military operation repeatedly but that only buys a respite of two or three years.
They need to attempt a strategic game-changer. Although Israeli leaders do not say so, it appears they may have decided to stay in Gaza long enough to decimate the Hamas leadership and infrastructure so decisively, that the Palestinian Authority might be capable of winning popular control over the Gaza Strip as it already possesses over the West Bank.
If that could be accomplished, not only would there not be a periodic threat of massive rocket launches, but it conceivably might open the way in time to a two-state negotiated peace settlement.
There are three new factors that have not been in play during previous Israeli campaigns in Gaza.
First, there was the attempted establishment of a unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which some Western states were beginning to pressure Israel into dealing with. But the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, allegedly by Hamas, undermined that prospect. And the retribution killing of a Palestinian youngster helped trigger the war that is currently underway.
Secondly, for the first time in history, the Egyptian government is neither neutral toward nor actively supportive of Hamas. The new government in Cairo is attempting to obliterate the Muslim Brotherhood and regards Hamas as an offshoot of the Brotherhood and thus an enemy.
And finally, the downing of a Malaysian commercial airliner by a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine has understandably taken the focus of the news and world attention away from the bloodshed in Gaza. Who would have imagined that at this stage of the war, this week’s Sunday New York Times would not have a single story on the Gaza operation on page one?
What that means is that as world leaders and opinion makers argue about what additional economic and diplomatic pressures can be applied against Vladimir Putin in an attempt to get him to pull in his horns in Ukraine, there will be considerably less pressure on Israel to cut short its operations in Gaza. Thus it may be afforded more time to try to accomplish its strategic objectives.
Is this the course that Israeli military and political leaders are covertly following? They can’t say so publicly, because if they fall short, the whole campaign would be labeled a serious defeat. But to pursue a game-changing strategy would seem to make a lot of sense.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He is also a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.