Road Map to a Gaza War

Seven years ago George W. Bush's incoming foreign policy team blamed the Clinton administration for an eleventh-hour rush for a Middle East peace agreement that ended with the explosion of the second Palestinian intifada. Now, with less than 10 months remaining in office, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are engaged in a similar last-minute push -- yet they don't seem to recognize the growing risk that their initiative, too, will end with another Israeli-Palestinian war.

Rice visited Jerusalem again last week to press for visible Israeli fulfillment of commitments made at last year's Annapolis conference, and she appeared to win some incremental steps, such as the dismantlement of a few dozen of the several hundred military roadblocks in the West Bank. Yet a more significant Israeli signal may have been delivered by the stream of senior officials who have quietly been visiting Washington in the past month: Israel, they have been saying, is on course for a major conflict with the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.

That battle seemed on the verge of beginning a month ago, when Hamas for the first time began firing Iranian-made missiles at the Israeli city of Ashkelon -- in addition to the volleys of homemade rockets it has been aiming at the smaller town of Sderot for several years. After a punishing series of Israeli airstrikes the fighting subsided, and with the State Department's encouragement Egypt began to broker discussions about a more enduring truce. In previous columns, I've argued that such a cease-fire in Gaza is the least bad of Israel's limited options.

But officials portray Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as having little interest in a deal with Hamas. They acknowledge that a suspension of attacks by both sides might make the ongoing peace talks easier -- and that the outbreak of an all-out conflict would almost certainly kill the Annapolis process. Yet, increasingly Israeli officials see the confrontation in Gaza with Hamas as more important in strategic terms than the talks with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The view in Jerusalem, as more than one official put it to me, is that there is no alternative to a military collision with Hamas in Gaza, probably before the end of the Bush administration.

The grim Israeli view is driven to a large degree by what officials say is the massive and continuing smuggling of weapons into Gaza, sponsored by Iran and tacitly allowed by Egypt, which despite considerable pressure from Washington shrinks from actions that might trigger its own confrontation with Hamas. Hamas is building hardened bunker systems and stockpiling missiles in imitation of the infrastructure built in southern Lebanon by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement. The Israelis say hundreds of Hamas militants have traveled to Iran for training in targeting and firing Grad missiles, Iran's version of the old Soviet Katyusha.

Sobered by the bloody nose it suffered when it attacked Hezbollah's Lebanese base in 2006, the Israeli army has been training against Hamas's Gaza strong points. But officials say that the longer the army waits to take on what is now viewed as a strategic threat, the greater Hamas's chance will be to inflict heavy casualties or strike southern Israeli cities with missiles. The cease-fire Egypt seeks (and that Hamas sometimes says it wants) would only make the problem worse, in the Israeli analysis, by giving Hamas the opportunity to accelerate its buildup.

Bush and Rice would like Israel to hold off against Hamas until Olmert can complete an agreement on principles for a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement with Abbas. While Olmert still wants that deal, it's become increasingly clear to the Israelis that an Abbas-led government will never be able to implement it. Despite extensive international aid, the West Bank Palestinian administration remains little more than a shell kept in power by Israel's troops. Hamas, the Israelis say, can stop the peace process at any time by resuming missile attacks against Ashkelon. And whatever happens in Gaza -- whether an Israeli-Hamas truce or all-out war -- Abbas stands to be further damaged. His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has hinted privately that he might favor an Israeli attack on Hamas, because it would allow Abbas's Fatah movement to take control of Gaza. But Abbas's security forces are unlikely to be strong enough to control Gaza's population of 1.5 million anytime soon.

The Israelis say the coming confrontation won't necessarily involve a full-scale reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. Given the predictable international backlash against any Israeli offensive, and the inevitable satellite television coverage of suffering Palestinians, Olmert is likely to wait for a clear provocation from Hamas. Perhaps it won't happen for a few more months. But what concerns some Israelis is the lack of readiness by the Bush administration for the possibility that its drive for Mideast peace will be overwhelmed by a Mideast war.

Jackson Diehl