Israeli response seen as inevitable
JERUSALEM - Israel's Gaza offensive was launched at a time when it would not harm relations with the United States 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 specialists said that 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's 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 is likely to cause minimum friction with the White House; President Bush is in his final month in office.
Some Washington analysts say Israel may have timed the air strikes, 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, Hamas's patron.
Barak and Livni, however, could get hurt politically if the offensive fails to achieve its goal.
"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 newspaper wrote in an editorial.
Netanyahu has been careful not to criticize his rivals. "We are all united," Netanyahu said in an interview yesterday.
He has suspended his campaign for now, he said. "There will be enough time for politics later."
Militants in Gaza, a coastal strip on Israel's southwest flank, have been firing rockets across the border since 2001. Israeli figures show that from January to the end of November, about 2,500 rockets and mortar shells crashed into Israel, killing eight.
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 were fired 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 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.
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.
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 US administration to revive some kind of dialogue; they were gambling on time."