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Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Why Didn't Israel Wait for Obama?

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- "The war isn't yet over, but it's the beginning of the final chapter," said Eytan Ben-Eliyahu, former Israeli air force chief, on Israel Television Wednesday night. "This is the crunch moment," he added.

The guns continued to roar -- overnight, warplanes attacked 70 targets the Israeli military announced, and by mid-morning a string of 15 Hamas rockets had landed in southern Israel -- but efforts to reach a diplomatic conclusion move into high gear Thursday on two fronts, in Cairo and Washington.

Four days later than originally planned, Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defense Ministry's political-security bureau, was dispatched to Cairo to learn the terms of Hamas's tentative acceptance of the Egyptian ceasefire plan. The decision finally to send Gilad was made late Wednesday by Israel's leadership trio -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. According to reliable political sources, there was a 'we've won' mood at the meeting and the moment was ripe to wrap up a quick ceasefire.

Israel's optimism that Hamas is bowing to Israel's terms for halting the fighting drew on reports that Hamas had dropped its previous insistence that Israeli troops withdraw from all sectors of the Gaza Strip they now occupy prior to the guns falling silent. Hamas is said still to be insisting that the Israeli pull-out be completed "within days" after the ceasefire is implemented; that's something Israel says it could live with.

Hamas has reportedly also backed down on another key Egyptian proviso -- that the Egypt-Gaza crossing at Rafah be controlled on the Palestinian side by the Palestinian Authority -- not by Hamas. The Palestinian units would be boosted, along the lines of an agreement drawn up back in November 2005 (when the PA controlled Gaza) by European and Turkish observers.

One central point of disagreement remains the length of the Hamas commitment. "We want it to last no longer than a year before we reassess whether it's working," said Hamas politburo member Mohammed Nasser in Cairo. The timing and scope of the opening of Israel's border with Gaza also needs to be resolved. Even before the war, Gaza was chafing under the Israeli blockade.

Israel, for its part, seems satisfied that it has dealt Hamas a sufficiently heavy blow to have restored its deterrent power. "They will think twice, and three times, before they fire rockets again," said Livni on Israeli TV.

Now for Israel, the key element in bringing the war to a successful conclusion is to ensure an effective mechanism is in place to stop Hamas re-arming. "This is directly between the Egyptians and us," Israeli officials have stressed, but all along they have also been looking for an international component to bolster Egyptian arrangements.

That's precisely the goal of a top-flight diplomatic mission that has set out for Washington where, as early as Friday, Israeli officials say, a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Israel aimed at countering the smuggling of arms into Gaza could be signed.

According to the officials, Israel wants the U.S. to commit to a "major effort" in expanding the "protective area" from which weapons intended for Hamas, mainly from Iran and via Sudan, would be intercepted before they reach the Sinai-Gaza border. Israel is also seeking intensified intelligence cooperation as well as the installation along the Gaza-Egypt border of U.S. and European (French and German) technology to detect tunnels though which Hamas has until now been smuggling in its missiles.

Israel is fast reaching the conclusion that the damage it has sustained politically and diplomatically from the ongoing suffering it has inflicted on the non-combatant population in Gaza is beginning to outweigh any direct gains they've made against Hamas. Also, for the military onslaught to continue days before the installation of the Obama administration in Washington would be untenable, Jerusalem officials acknowledge.

The U.S.-aligned Arab states are also in dire need of a quick ceasefire. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are seeking to head off a Qatari attempt to convene an Arab summit.

They go along with the call of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, for hundreds of millions of dollars to be immediately earmarked for the reconstruction of Gaza, but are less inclined to support the Emir's suggestion that Israel be put into the international dock for "war crimes." They want, at all costs, to prevent the Qatari proposal that the Arab League initiative for a comprehensive Mid-East peace be rescinded. This would be self-defeating, Cairo and Riyadh argue, when Barack Obama has understood the urgency of needing to grapple with solutions for the Israeli-Arab conflict from the very beginning of his administration.

For the three weeks of the war, Israel has managed to head off what inevitably emerges in all Middle East wars -- a link between the hostilities and attempts to solve the broad Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is, how to end Israel's 42-year occupation of Palestinian lands. Today, that linkage has been replaced by a wait on both sides to see whether President Obama will, out of Israel's war with Hamas, grasp the moment to construct a concerted new effort to promote the two-state solution.

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Albion Monitor   January 15, 2009   (

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