JERUSALEM An Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip will not provide any long-term solution to the problem posed by the Islamist group Hamas, and this will make the government think long and hard before sending in the troops.
After six days of intensive military strikes against the Palestinian enclave, which Israel says are needed to halt regular militant rocket fire, thousands of Israeli soldiers are massing on the border awaiting orders to attack.
But aware that an assault on the densely populated coastal territory could backfire militarily and diplomatically, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will probably accept a ceasefire if he can draw half-decent terms from Hamas.
"I have never believed in the notion of definitive solutions per se," said Einat Wilf, who sits on the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee and is a member of Defence Minister Ehud Barak's Atzmaut party.
"If there is the possibility to reach a reasonable situation, even if it is not an ideal one, where at least for a while Hamas no longer shells our towns and civilians, then this will be the course of the government," she told Reuters.
However, the rightist coalition, seeking re-election in January, is facing strident calls from some of its allies for concerted action that could yet influence the decision.
Moreover, any hopes in Europe that the conflict might help to revive moribund peace talks with the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is despised by Hamas for renouncing armed resistance, look certain to be dashed.
Dreams that Israel might one day live in peace with all its neighbours have long since evaporated, and most Israelis seem to accept that their army, the most powerful in the region, will have to wage war regularly to defend their interests.
Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but has ever since come under sporadic rocket fire from militants who refuse to recognise its right to exist and chafe under a tight blockade imposed by both Israel and Egypt.
Looking to halt the attacks, Israel launched a three-week war at the end of 2008 that left 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. After a lull, the rockets started shooting across the border again, infuriating southern Israeli communities.
With the elections looming, Netanyahu felt compelled to send in the war planes. By Monday, Israel said it had carried out 1,350 air strikes against arms caches and other sites which have killed about 100 people, more than half of them civilians.
Some of the prime minister's supporters say now is the time to plough into Gaza and stamp out Hamas once and for all.
"We can buy time with small operations, but eventually we will have to deal with the main issue which is the downfall of the regime of Hamas," Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of parliament and a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, told Reuters. "I think we should postpone elections and bring down Hamas."
Others are even more outspoken, such as the son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is a newspaper columnist.
"We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn't stop with Hiroshima. The Japanese weren't surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too," Gilad Sharon wrote in Monday's Jerusalem Post.
Few if any in the military or intelligence establishment would ever propose such a course of action. They know that the radicalism in Gaza cannot be countered by bombs alone.
"If worst comes to worst, we can (launch) a much wider operation in Gaza. But that is not going to really solve the problem," Yosef Kuperwasser, the director of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told reporters last month.
"There is a wide and deep problem of hate indoctrination that produces more and more terrorists all the time," he added, suggesting that more violence will only stoke the radicalism.
IRAN AND EGYPT
When deciding in the coming hours what to do, Netanyahu will also have to consider much broader concerns than just the tiny confines of Gaza. He will need to weigh up future relations with Egypt and also look to see where Iran fits into the picture.
The election last year of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in Egypt has lead to a seismic change in relations between Egypt and Israel. So far, their 1979 peace treaty is holding fast, but a bloody incursion into Gaza could yet alter that.
Any upset in that crucial regional relationship, which has been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East strategy, would be a boon for Iran and bolster the Islamic Republic in its stand-off with Israel and the West over its nuclear programme.
"An Israeli ground invasion would be very much in Iran's interest because first of all it would cause fantastic damage to Israel's international standing, particularly with Egypt," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian expert who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.
"The place where Israel has to win the war against Iran and Hamas is in the soft power arena, not the hard power arena."
Looking at the soft arena, European politicians have linked the violence in Gaza with the paralysed peace process, arguing that the prospect of a better future might draw Palestinians away from militancy and undercut Hamas.
The last direct negotiations between Israel and Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank broke down in 2010 over the issue of Jewish settlement building across the territory.
President Abbas wants a vote in the U.N. General Assembly this month so the Palestinians can become an "observer state" rather than just a "entity" as at present, giving them more clout in world bodies and potential leverage over the Israelis.
Israel is livid at this unilateral move and, whatever happens in Gaza, new negotiations seem far away.
"The European view is disconnected from reality," said member of parliament Wilf. "I believe talks should be conducted only when you have a fairly good chance to succeed. I don't believe we are even close to a resolution now."
(editing by David Stamp)
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