Reasons for delaying a major attack on Gaza are well known. They include the cost in Israeli casualties, compared to what Israelis currently suffer; the likelihood of international condemnation; and the temporary and partial relief that such an attack is likely to produce.
Now there is another factor. Egypt is trying to mediate a cease fire between Israel and Gaza, and Israel wants to give the Egyptians sufficient time to probe the prospects. Perhaps they will come to see the impossibility of dealing with Hamas, and thus add to the international credibility of Israeli actions when it does attack.
The issue of relative costs is complicated. Tension on the people living alongside Gaza is a real problem. They deserve better. But one recent day illustrates the arithmetic. There were more than 50 rockets and mortars fired toward Israel. The sole physical injury was a woman injured by shrapnel. The hospital defined her condition as from light to moderate. There was property damage, less than due to a Midwestern tornado. On the same day, 14 Palestinians died and many more were injured.
The people of Gaza are not eating as well as they were. Supplies of petroleum are limited, and causing more of them to walk, or ride donkey carts rather than spend a couple of days in line at a gas station. Electricity is available, but not always.
In short, Israel is putting significant pressure on Gaza without a major invasion. It may be a cost-effective way of dealing with Palestinian aggression.
There is also a bit of party politics in the calculations of those Israelis making decisions.
A prominent opponent of a major assault is Ehud Barak. He is head of the Labor Party, Defense Minister, former Prime Minister and former chief of the IDF general staff. Why does he oppose? See the above. Plus he may want to firm up his party's reputation as being accommodationist with respect to the Palestinians. He wants to give maximum chance to prospects of a cease fire.
Accommodation may not be a good move for the party. Many Israelis want to deal forcefully with Hamas. The Labor Party's posture in favor of accommodation, plus occasional expressions in favor of socialism, has seen its fortunes fall from 44 Knesset seats in 1992 to 19 today.
Barak may also not want to invade while Ehud Olmert is the prime minister. A major operation could boost Olmert's flagging reputation, less than 20 percent approval according to recent polls.
It is not clear how much Olmert wants to attack. His hasty decision to invade Lebanon in 2006 is one of the things that got him into trouble. Also, the Kadima Party foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, usually says positive things about Condoleezza Rice's peace efforts. She may not want to spoil those prospects with a military campaign.
The right wing opposition is all in favor of an invasion. Bibi Netanyahu, head of Likud, is one of the loudest voices. Currently he is leading 12 seats in the Knesset, down from 32 in 1992 and 38 in 2003. He is hoping for bigger things in the election that several parties say they want.
Leading members of the new party, Kadima, came from Likud and Labor. Kadima soaked up many of the seats previously held by those parties, but its fortunes depend on what happens to Olmert. He has agreed, with some qualifications, to his party getting ready for an election by organizing primaries. He has not said if he will be a candidate.
For all major decisions, including perhaps an invasion of Gaza, Olmert is waiting on the cross-examination of the witness who testified to some activities that look like deception, violation of duties, and perhaps money laundering, tax evasion, and acceptance of bribes. That witness seems flakey, and sometimes worse. He may fall apart in a cross examination.
If that happens, the electoral calculations of Kadima, Labor, and Likud may go back to where they were some time ago.
There is no reliable way of concluding what is the importance of each of the elements causing a delay with respect to a major operation in Gaza. Virtually everyone is saying that it is inevitable. Virtually no one is saying what form it will take, or that it will happen soon.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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