Gaza Conflict Highlights Israel's Search For A Long-Term Strategy On Palestine

A Palestinian woman walks past a building hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. The Israeli milit
A Palestinian woman walks past a building hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. The Israeli military widened its range of targets in the Gaza Strip on Sunday to include the media operations of the Palestinian territory's Hamas rulers, sending its aircraft to attack two buildings used by both Hamas and foreign media outlets. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

WASHINGTON -- In December 2008, Israel launched a massive air and ground war in the volatile Gaza Strip, in an attempt to quell a recent spike in rocket fire from Hamas militants in the territory.

That operation, called Cast Lead, was intended to deplete Hamas's store of long-range rockets and reinforce a deterrent effect on terrorist groups in the strip, Israel said. As many of 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the course of the three-week war according to some estimates, and for a time the rocket fire waned significantly.

Four years later, Israel finds itself engaged in virtually a repeat scenario, as airstrikes pound Gaza and tanks stand at the border ready to move in. Hundreds of projectiles had been fired out of Gaza this year by the time Israel launched the new operation last week, and thousands more have flown in both directions since.

Some Israelis like to talk about missions like these as "cutting the grass" -- periodic, large-scale strikes against militants in Gaza that are simply part of a scheme of routine, endless, maintenance.

As Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general who is now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, recently put it in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, "You need from time to time a Cast Lead Operation."

"I don't think there's anyone who thinks this is the solution to the problem or some sort of major long-term change in the situation," said Charles Freilich, a former Israeli national security adviser and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "I think, basically, the whole thing is about buying time."

But the pattern also leaves many Israeli experts and former officials dissatisfied, and worried about the apparent lack of any far-reaching game plan for peace.

"What's the long-term Israeli strategy?" said Daniel Levy, the Middle East director for the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Israeli government official. "Israel has no broader strategy. Instead, there are a bunch of short-term things. Deterrence is one of them. Laying down a marker in the post-Arab Spring environment, that Israel is still strong enough to do what it likes in the neighborhood, is another. And there is also an election side to this."

Shaul Arieli, a retired colonel in the IDF who served as a commander of troops in Gaza and is now a board member of the Tel Aviv-based Council for Peace and Security, says the lack of a broader strategy for the Palestinian situation makes conflicts like the current one essentially unproductive.

"I think this is the wrong move," Arieli told The Huffington Post. "The real question is -- what are we going to do the day after?"

Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel's intelligence agency Mossad, wrote in an op-ed in the Financial Times on Sunday that without a clear and confined resolution to the conflict in Gaza, "Israel will have to do what no government has done before: determine a comprehensive strategy on the future of Gaza and its 2 million inhabitants."

So far, that comprehensive strategy is lacking, the experts say.

One hope for the conflict might be for Gaza, and Hamas with it, to fall further under the responsibility of Egypt.

"Israel would not be troubled if one of the byproducts of this is that Gaza becomes further pushed into being Egypt's back yard rather than West Bank's back yard," said Levy.

The hope of the current government, Arieli believes, would be to find a way to leave a weakened Hamas isolated in Gaza, where it would harmlessly fester.

"But it's an illusion," Arieli said. "It's not a long-term strategy. It's only a matter of time before Hamas takes over control of the PLO, and comes to be seen as the legal and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."

Indeed, the recent flurry of diplomatic visitors into Gaza, which have included the foreign minister of Tunisia and the prime minister of Egypt -- as well as an upcoming visit from Ahmet Davutoglu, the popular foreign minister of Turkey, which is a close ally of the United States -- suggests a growing legitimacy for Hamas in Palestine as the conflict drags on.

And as many analysts have pointed out, there seems to be little appetite in the current Israeli government for the far more arduous, and less politically satisfying, work of negotiating peace.

As recently as early November, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignored an apparent overture from the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when Abbas suggested he was prepared to give up the right of return in a peace settlement.

At the same time, Netanyahu's government approved the construction of 1,200 new settlement homes in the Palestinian West Bank.

As for Gaza, many people who spoke to The Huffington Post in recent days pointed to the moment that opened the current conflict, the targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Hamas' military chief, as an additional sign of the shortsightedness that has characterized the situation.

Jabari was a powerful, disciplined figure with a reputation for ordering and carrying out fierce attacks on Israel over the years, including the mission that led to the capture of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held in Gaza for five years. Some in Israel have taken to referring to him as Israel's Osama bin Laden.

But he was also known as a pragmatist, someone Israeli officials could count on to maintain order in the Strip, and rein in the more reckless Palestinian factions that even Israeli officials recognize are most often responsible for the truce-breaking rocket fire from Gaza.

"He was a very strong person, he had the power to control all the other organizations in the Gaza Strip, especially Islamic Jihad," said Arieli. "It's easier to control the truce and the military power if you have a strong man like Jabari that has the power to enforce his decisions."

"Israel lost a guy we can talk to," added Gershon Baskin, a Jerusalem-based peace activist who played an instrumental role in helping negotiate the release of Shalit last year, which involved back-door discussions with Jabari. "People forget that Jabari was responsible for keeping Shalit alive, instructing captors to treat him with dignity, and make sure he always had food."

Without him, Baskin said, it's hard to imagine Hamas becoming anything but more extreme. "There are contests within Hamas of who is more powerful, and while there is a strong element of extreme people, there is also a very clear element of more pragmatic people, and Jabari was one of them. I would imagine they are going to fall aside now."