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Analysis: Where is Israel heading?

Palestinian youths watch smoke billow from burning factories after Israeli strikes in the east of Gaza city, Gaza Strip on 9 January 2009
Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip shows no sign of coming to an end

By Paul Adams
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

Two weeks after Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, is it clear what the government is trying to achieve?

Against the constant din of gunfire, ministers and officials have kept up a steady barrage of comment, which points to a range of possibilities.

The most frequent refrain has also been the most ambiguous.

"The fundamental objective of the operation," said Defence Minister Ehud Barak earlier this week, "is to change the reality of security for the south."

I can't see any evidence that it was a thought through operation from a political point of view
Yossi Mekelberg
Chatham House

On the face of it, this means protecting Israeli civilians from rockets fired from inside the Gaza Strip by Hamas and other militant groups.

And given that rockets are still being fired, it is possible to argue that Israel is still pursuing this primary goal.

But Israeli newspaper reports speak of differences at the heart of the Israeli cabinet, with Mr Barak content to pursue a limited objective, while Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni harbours grander designs.

"Harsh disagreement between [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and Barak and Livni over way to end the war in the Gaza Strip," read a headline in Thursday's Haaretz newspaper.

Inside, columnist Ari Shavit wrote: "Barak believes there are those suppressing the fact that toppling Hamas entails the occupation of Gaza."

Public unease

Certainly, no one in a position of authority has spoken of wanting to take over the territory Israel vacated - with some relief - more than three years ago.

But at the end of December, Ehud Olmert's deputy, Haim Ramon, also spoke of the need to "topple Hamas", while Israel's ambassador to London, Ron Prosor, told the BBC: "Without Hamas... we will be able to reach out to the ones on both sides... who are willing to move forward."

A world without Hamas is certainly something most Israelis would welcome, even if polls suggest the public is deeply uneasy about going into Gaza on the ground.

But Major Gen Uzi Dayan, the former Chairman of the Israeli National Security Council, said Israel's real goal should be to surround the Gaza Strip and "dismantle" the Hamas regime.

Asked who would run Gaza in its place, Gen Dayan said this was none of Israel's business.

"I prefer a vacuum to what is there now," he told me.

Gen Dayan was giving his own view, not the official Israeli position, but as Israeli troops press home their campaign inside the Gaza Strip, and diplomacy fails to bring the conflict to an end, some are wondering whether Israel really knows where it is heading.

"I can't see any evidence that it was a thought-through operation, from a political point of view," said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow of London's Chatham House think tank.

"And if it creates a political vacuum, even more extreme elements can enter into this equation," he added.

Mekelberg believes Israel's forthcoming elections, now less than one month away, help explain both the timing and the "excessiveness" of Operation Cast Lead.

It would not be the first time Israel has gone to war with elections looming.

In 1996, Shimon Peres launched Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon. He lost.

This time, polling evidence suggests the war has helped Tzipi Livni to narrow the gap over her Likud rival, Binyamin Netanyahu.

But the rockets are still flying and there is no obvious end in sight.



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