Barry: Israel's Endgame on Gaza

Does the Gaza offensive signal that the Israeli government has decided to embark on the end game? The scale of the effort—a massive aerial assault, with Israeli tanks massing along Gaza's border in evident preparation for a ground assault—certainly suggests that. What does the "endgame" mean? It's the term a longtime senior Israeli defense adviser used in a conversation with me a few months ago: a military effort to crush Palestinian resistance for a generation.

Wars end in one of two ways: by negotiation, or by the decisive defeat of one side. But, as that Israeli adviser argued to me in a session in Washington, neither party to the 60-year conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has given its full support to either outcome. Each side has held back from commitment either to a negotiated settlement or to military victory.

Consider the Palestinian resistance. The carnage in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 demonstrates what a truly determined insurgency can achieve. By comparison, the three Palestinian intifadas have been amateurish: disorganized, limited in intensity and territory—low-level unrest largely confined to the West Bank. Israel itself was barely touched; and the toll of Israeli military casualties, though steady, was slight compared to those inflicted by Hizbullah in one month's fighting in southern Lebanon in 2006. In cold military terms, suicide bombers striking in Israeli cities—the tactic Hamas, in particular, espoused from the mid-1990s—offered the Palestinians their first strategic weapon, as Israel's political leaders acknowledged at the time. But the suicide-bombing campaign waned. One reason, no doubt, was because the Israelis managed to kill its early organizers. But such evidence as we have suggests that Hamas itself decided to halt the suicide bombings. Why? A theory credited by significant Israeli analysts is that Hamas feared the campaign's success would provoke an overwhelming Israeli military response. In short, the Palestinians have held back from waging an all-out military effort—aiming, on this analysis, to do enough to coerce Israel to meet their settlement terms but not enough to provoke Israeli wrath.

Now consider the Israelis' response. The mountains of rubble in Nablus and Jenin after the Israeli air and tank assaults in the summer of 2002 invite derision at any talk of Israeli restraint. But the reality is that the Israelis have, for most of this long-running conflict, showed remarkable military restraint. The destruction in Jenin and Nablus—or across southern Lebanon in 2006—could have been repeated many times over. That it was not suggests that the Israelis, like the Palestinians, have held back from a military resolution to the conflict.

Yet neither side has really committed itself to the painful compromises that a negotiated outcome would entail. Accords, interim settlements, intermediate steps—of these there has been no shortage. What all have in common is that the difficult issues are postponed to some future Age of Aquarius. The status of Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian return, Israel's withdrawal from the lands won in 1967: on none of these has there ever been any evidence that either side is prepared to meet the other's core political needs. Nor is there any reasonable hope that, even if Israeli or Palestinian leaders could steel themselves to make a deal, they could sell the compromises to their followers. The "two-state solution" pressed so fruitlessly by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is arguably merely the latest delusion. Any plausible blueprint for West Bank withdrawal would require Israel to forcibly evacuate tens of thousands of settlers who are armed, determined to stay and have powerful allies in Israel and in the United States. The likely outcome would be something close to civil war in Israel. Some Israeli defense officials even wonder, privately, whether the Israeli Army might sunder. And to what end? Hamas would remain committed to the destruction of Israel; and any attempt by, say, the Fatah leadership to impose settlement terms would entail something close to civil war among the Palestinians, too.

Against that bleak background, what might Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak see as Israel's options? Olmert, about to leave office, has publicly lamented years of lost opportunities for peace. But might-have-beens are for historians; political leaders have to play the hands they're dealt. And, as one senior British official concluded after a recent trip to the region, "Israel's leadership sees Israel as facing an existential crisis." Wherever they look, they see the balance of power tilting against Israel. Nothing seems likely to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program and, macho rhetoric aside, Israel's ability to destroy this militarily are limited, short of a nuclear strike of its own. Oil-rich and Shia-dominated Iraq and Iran will have ample resources to fund and supply any Palestinian group they choose to support. (The Bush neocons' belief that a democratic Iraq would make peace with Israel looks to be as flawed as their other judgments.) Washington's desperate efforts to bail out the U.S. banking system by soliciting cash from the sovereign wealth funds of the Gulf states will give the Arabs more clout on Wall Street, which in time will surely influence America's policies in the region. And Israeli leaders fear that President Obama will push them harder than any of his predecessors to agree to settlement terms none wants to contemplate.

The great Athenian historian Thucydides, writing almost 2,500 years ago, concluded that one reason a nation goes to war is a perception of waning power: act now because the future looks worse than the present. The scale of the assault on Gaza suggests that the Olmert government is validating Thucydides' analysis: embarking on the endgame to crush Hamas before it gets stronger, and Israel's position gets weaker. As Thucydides also observed, though, nations taking this gamble tend to be poor judges of what the consequences will be.