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Israel’s Stark Choice in Gaza: Cease-Fire or Regime Change?

It was on the third and fourth days of its retaliatory air offensive in Gaza that the fork in the road for Israel became clear: another cease-fire agreement, or regime change.

On December 29, after days of circumspect public statements, the rhetoric of some of Israel’s most visible officials changed markedly.

“The goal of the operation is to topple Hamas,” declared Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon during a December 29 television interview. “We will stop firing immediately if someone takes the responsibility of this government, anyone but Hamas. We are favorable to any other government to take the place of Hamas.”

Israel’s interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, told Israel Radio that there was “no room for a cease-fire” until the threat of rocket fire was removed.

And, in a widely quoted statement the same day, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, told CNN, “The main goal is to destroy completely this terrorist gang, which makes people on both sides of the border, in Gaza and in Israel, suffer daily.”

Shalev later clarified to the Associated Press that it was Hamas’s “infrastructure” that should be destroyed. Her spokeswoman told the Forward that infrastructure referred to “weapons and equipment, not people or staff.” Moreover, the Jerusalem Post quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry official as saying, “specifically referring to Shalev,” that “people are starting to divert from the message.” The same official dismissed Sheetrit’s words as “macho” political rhetoric.

Still, no ranking official has openly contradicted any of the three, leaving the question of war goals starkly unclear.

From the launch of Israel’s air campaign into Gaza on December 27 until the day of those statements, Israeli leaders had been careful to frame their goal in limited, purely defensive terms: to stop Hamas and other groups from attacking southern Israel with rockets. Israel and Hamas had largely observed an unsigned cease-fire from June 19, radically reducing rocket fire, but the barrage of rockets rose sharply December 19, one day before the cease-fire expired.

Yet for all this expanded rhetoric, just one day later, press reports stated that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was mulling over the possibility of declaring a 48-hour “humanitarian pause” in the Israeli air offensive. During this time, the reports indicated, France would launch a mediation effort in an attempt to secure conditions to extend the cease-fire.

The apparently contradictory developments starkly highlighted the question of Israel’s war aims. One path could take Israel toward a limited end that garnered international support and a greater chance of achievement. The second — regime change — could plunge Israel into an abyss.

“Where is all this leading? What is the point of it? Is it just for another shaky cease-fire?” asked Aaron David Miller, a ranking Middle East aide in several U.S. administrations. “For the Israelis, it is probably clear what their goals are. For us, it is not as obvious.”

A wide spectrum of policy and military analysts in Washington and Jerusalem warned the Israeli government against taking a path leading to regime change in Gaza. Many pointed to grandiose Israeli declarations in 2006 about destroying the Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, touching off a war. But the goal of destroying Hezbollah proved unachievable, handing the Islamic group a propaganda victory.

“If I were the Israeli government, I would be very, very cautious in setting goals,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Cordesman noted the “lessons of the Lebanon War and any other attempt to declare ‘mission accomplished’ in other parts of the world.”

He said, “The question is, can [rockets from Gaza] be stopped, or can they be brought down to a situation in which there are attacks, but at a low level?”

Few evinced certainty that either could be achieved without an Israeli ground incursion. But all agreed that this was a momentous step to take.

“If you send in ground troops, you can’t know how deeply they’ll be involved in fighting until you actually do it,” Cordesman cautioned.

Even then, some analysts said, there was no guarantee that Israel could completely stop rocket launches without militarily retaking Gaza. Israel directly controlled the district from 1967 until its unilateral withdrawal in 2005. The military and diplomatic costs of that control have left Israeli leaders almost viscerally opposed to trying to govern Gaza again.

The Palestinian Authority, Israel’s partner in peace negotiations, took control of Gaza after Israel left, but was forced out two years later in an armed confrontation with Hamas.

Hamas, an armed Islamist political group that rejects Israel’s right to exist, has taken responsibility for numerous terrorist acts, including suicide bombings, against Israelis. Israel has radically cut down on terrorist acts by cordoning off Gaza and imposing tough security measures in the West Bank. But Hamas’s stance has left Israeli leaders determined to do all they can — until now, at least, short of a military invasion — to oust the group from control of Gaza.

After Hamas seized the coastal strip in 2007, Israel sought to weaken the Islamists’ grip by imposing a siege that has allowed little more than humanitarian supplies through, generating widespread poverty. Israel has permitted humanitarian supplies to continue to flow, even in the midst of the military campaign. But Hamas believed that a June 2008 cease-fire agreement, brokered by Egypt but never put into writing, included an assent by Israel to lift its commercial blockade, as well. That never happened.

“My personal feeling is that we should not be closing passages,” said Yossi Alpher, a former senior Israeli intelligence analyst and retired director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. “It is collective punishment,” he said. “And it has brought no benefit to Israel at all.”

If negotiations for a new cease-fire take place, undoubtedly this issue will be part of the agenda. On December 29, the government of Senegal reported that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had told its president, Abdoulaye Wade, that Hamas was ready to sign a mutual cease-fire that would involve ending Israel’s attacks and blockade. Hamas later denied the Senegalese statement.

But the issue remains moot so long as Israel’s own war aims — and its tactical ability to achieve them — remain unclear.

“I think there is a heavy tactical quality to Israeli policy,” said Phillip Wilcox, a former State Department Middle East specialist who is now president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a group critical of Israeli settlement policies. “I don’t think over the years there has been a lot of attention to strategy — that is, what’s going to happen after the war? I don’t think they thought about it in Lebanon. And I don’t think they’ve thought about it in this war.”

Anthony Zinni, a retired American four-star general, agreed.

“I think they are trying to either eliminate or severely damage Hamas and to find a way to drive them out of power, but unfortunately, at the end, it will only strengthen them,” said Zinni, who was appointed President Bush’s special envoy to Israel and the P.A. in 2002. “It creates another generation of supporters for the Hamas and also increases pressure on the Arab governments.

“It is not going to accomplish anything,” he said.

But Shoshana Bryen, of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, pointed to one place where Israel had, in fact, been able to reduce the threat of violence without exercising direct control: the West Bank.

After terrorist attacks in Israel launched from the West Bank reached a bloody peak in 2002, Bryen pointed out, Israel seized responsibility for counter-terrorism in the territory from the P.A., its putative partner. The Israeli army went into the West Bank towns of Jenin and Hebron and rousted suspected terrorist cells that year — albeit at great cost to its international image, and with the stoking of Arab anger.

Since then, Bryen said, Israel has continued to “cut the grass,” preventing terrorist cells from forming.

“Israel broke the back of terrorism there,” she said. “But it also made it possible for some kind of normal life” under the nominal governance of the P.A.

Many critics object that life in the West Bank is anything but normal, citing expanding Israeli-Jewish settlements and ubiquitous security roadblocks. But a more fundamental problem is that in the West Bank — unlike in Gaza — Israel has an acquiescent partner willing to continue governing, however unhappily, after the Israeli military action.

“The military objective will follow the political objective,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But the policy objectives are in flux. We don’t know what the goals are.”

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