JERUSALEM—With the badly frayed Israeli-Hamas cease-fire due to run out Friday, the fear is that a full-scale war in the Gaza Strip will be waiting for the Obama administration come January 20—as if the president-elect's Middle East plate wasn't already full. An Israeli ground invasion of the strip, meant to stop the firing of rockets and mortars on Israeli border towns, is "not a question of if but of when," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said recently.
Yet, despite saber-rattling on both sides, along with the continued Palestinian rocketing and pinpoint Israeli attacks, it appears that some measure of restraint will remain in place after the six-month cease-fire ends—and one reason is likely a mutual desire to avoid alienating America's new president from day one.
The main reason, however, is that each side realizes there is no victory to be gained, only a bloodier chapter in this long war of attrition. So, Hamas says it will fire rockets only in response to Israeli assaults, and Israel says it will hold off on a ground invasion. "We've already tried military solutions in the past, and this has not always brought immediate results," Amos Gilad, a defense official and Israel's point man in the Egyptian-mediated cease-fire talks, told Israel Radio.
The only way Israel can stop the rocketing completely is to militarily reoccupy the Gaza Strip, a well-armed, explosive region of 1.5 million people that Israel ruled for 38 years before withdrawing in 2005. A popular saying here is that "everybody knows how you go into Gaza, but nobody knows how you get out."
Since Israel's withdrawal, there has been a cycle of escalations and temporary cease-fires. The current truce, brokered by Egypt on June 19, was holding up quite well until the beginning of November, when Israeli commandos raided a Gazan tunnel they suspected was being dug for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. (Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was snatched via such a tunnel in June 2006 and is believed to be held somewhere in the strip.)
At least four Hamas gunmen were killed in the November raid, and the Palestinian rockets and targeted Israeli attacks began anew. Since November, some 20 Palestinian militants have been killed, while Israeli border towns have been hit by about 250 rockets and mortars, which caused only a few injuries but a lot of fear.
Naturally, the fighting has featured in the campaign for Israel's February 10 elections. Dovish Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is running for prime minister, is trying to bulk up her security credentials by blaming Defense Minister Ehud Barak, also a contender for prime minister, for inaction. Barak, in turn, has charged Livni with political grandstanding. Meanwhile, the most hawkish candidate of all, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, stayed above the fray as the polls showed him the clear favorite to succeed Olmert, who resigned under pressure created by an array of corruption investigations.
The clash across the Israeli-Gazan border is the most explosive front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With Hamas continuing to call officially for Israel's destruction and Israel—backed by the United States—refusing to negotiate with Hamas, there is no current option for peace there, only for conflict management. However, the situation could change in an instant if one of those Palestinian rockets or mortar rounds falls not in an open field as usual but on Israelis. This happens about once or twice a year, and if it happens again soon, the challenge for the man in the Oval Office will not be the one being debated today—how to make peace in the Middle Eastbut how to prevent another Middle East war.