The Obama Factor in Israel's Gaza War

Eyeing next week's inauguration, Israeli officials consider whether to declare victory and withdraw.

By + More

JERUSALEM—Israel would very badly like to wrap up "Operation Cast Lead," its military assault against Palestinian militants in Gaza, by the time Barack Obama is sworn in as president in six days. But will it happen?

As the calendar approaches Inauguration Day, it seems that Israel is seeing with increasing clarity the wisdom of standing down. On the other hand, though, knowledge of Israel's eagerness to take this war off Obama's plate is probably having the opposite effect on Hamas, causing the militant Islamic regime to stiffen its resolve at the indirect cease-fire talks being mediated by Egyptian officials in Cairo.

There is no way Israel will agree to a cease-fire on any terms other than victorious ones. An election is coming up February 10, and after the less-than-victorious end of the 2006 war in Lebanon, the public is expecting a decisive end to this one. With a cease-fire seemingly hard to achieve and a new U.S. administration days away from the White House, the simplest if not the only way for Israel to end the war by next Tuesday may be unilateral withdrawal.

This is the route favored by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, whom the polls show running behind right-wing opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Livni's position is a hawkish one: Because Hamas's agreements are, in her view, "meaningless," a cease-fire would restrain only Israel, so it's best to exit without any commitments and remain free to punish Hamas when necessary.

The second member of the governing "troika," Defense Minister Ehud Barak, favors a cease-fire, arguing that Egypt and other foreign actors can impel Hamas to effectively disarm, thus breaking the threat of rockets on Israeli cities.

The trio's leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also favors a cease-fire, but unlike Barak, he maintains that if an agreement can't be reached, Israeli troops should massively invade the heart of Gaza City and the refugee camps to "clean out" Hamas's guerrillas and arsenal. Otherwise, in Olmert's view, it's just a matter of time before Hamas rebuilds and starts firing heavier, longer-range rockets all the way to Tel Aviv.

But there are huge drawbacks to such a move, of course: a certain rise in deaths of Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers, an intensification of anti-Israeli attitudes around the world, and the danger of the war spreading. This morning three rockets fired from southern Lebanon landed in an open field across the border in Israel, prompting an Israeli artillery retaliation. This was the second such exchange since the Gaza war began December 27.

Yesterday, Israeli border troops were fired on from Jordan, though Jordanian officials suggested it was hunters who did it. The day before, Israeli border troops were shot at from Syria.

Cleaning out Hamas from the heart of Gaza, according to reported estimates by military officials, would take about three months. In that time, anything horrible could happen.

But today, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz , an extremely powerful player joined Livni in calling for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza: the Army leadership. The generals argue that the troops "achieved several days ago all that [they] possibly could in Gaza" and that Israel's onslaught will have a lasting deterrent effect on Hamas. The military men also say, "It is better to cease the offensive now, just several days before the inauguration of new U.S. President Barack Obama."