Quick End To Gaza Conflict Seen As Uncertain

As the conflict in Gaza drags into Day 18, foreign policy advisers to President-elect Obama must be asking themselves whether the fighting will still be going on when he takes the oath of office.

No one, including the combatants themselves, is clear at this point whether the war is nearing an end or beginning a new, drawn-out and deadly phase.

"We are at a basic tipping point, where the Israelis could go either way," says Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel, "either to launch a major offensive against Hamas strongholds in Gaza City or to accept a cease-fire and pull out."

Since the offensive began Dec. 27, the conflict has taken the lives of more than 900 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians. Israel has lost 10 soldiers, and Hamas rockets and mortars have killed three Israeli civilians. Israel says it was driven to take military action to stop Hamas rocket attacks on towns in southern Israel. Palestinians say they are striking out against an Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Indyk says he fears the balance will tip toward an all-out invasion, especially since diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation seem to have lost momentum after the U.N. passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs, says the senior command of the Israeli Defense Forces wants a full-scale invasion of Gaza.

"And it seems that with the call-up of reservists and going ever farther into Gaza City, there's a big chance the senior command will get its way," he says.

The problem, Cook says, is that each side apparently believes it has a strong chance of doing significant damage to its enemy if the Israelis penetrate deep into Gaza. Hamas may believe it can ratchet up Israel casualties if it can lure the Israelis into house-to-house fighting, he says. And Israeli commanders may believe they can finally kill off the senior Hamas leadership.

Indyk, who heads the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, notes that the Israeli media are widely quoting unnamed Israeli Army sources as saying that Hamas is about to crack.

"They may be right, but if they're wrong — and they're quite good at getting it wrong in these situations — then Hamas gains," Indyk says.

That's because "the more misery Israel inflicts on Palestinian civilians, the more support Hamas gets in the Arab street," and the more Arab governments feel the pressure of public opinion to take a hard line against Israel, he says. "There is a downside to this [for Hamas]. It lies in the danger that they may lose control of Gaza altogether. They have to think twice about this."

But Cook points out there's a downside for Israelis, as well.

"Everybody in Israeli society is deeply afraid of having to reoccupy the Gaza Strip," he says. "What do they do with Gaza after they've done this?"

There's also a political dimension for Israelis. Israel holds elections on Feb. 10, and Cook says the fortunes of the war could have a major effect on the frontrunners, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Both are enjoying strong popularity in the polls, but they could see a reverse in favor if the Israeli military starts to experience high casualties in a drawn-out fight.

Cook also says that neither Livni nor Barak will want to bear the costs of a prolonged occupation of the refugee camps and cities that constitute Hamas' strongholds.

Indyk calls this "a very dangerous moment" and says it demands an active American diplomacy though the outgoing administration seems exhausted and the incoming administration is trying to find its feet.

"My own experience," Indyk says, "is that if there's no political intervention from the outside, left to their own devices, the parties will engage in a deepening conflict."

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