easy answers. But it's never been more vital that Israel start looking for them.
How to Deal with Hamas
The most immediate challenge facing Israel is that posed by Hamas. Gaza's tragedy has for days beenplaying out on the world's TV sets. By Jan. 7, more than 700 Palestinians, many of them noncombatants,had been killed. But there's something tragic, too, in Israel's predicament: in any confrontation with itsenemies, it is damned if it does and doomed if it doesn't. Across Israel's political spectrum there seems to bea consensus that Hamas' provocative rocket barrages could not go unanswered — though whether Israel'sresponse has been proportional to the threat is, at the least, questionable.See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.See pictures of Israel's deadly assault on Gaza.Perhaps more threatening than the rockets themselves was the doubt they cast over Israel's vaunted powerof deterrence, which is key to keeping its hostile neighbors at bay. That power was badly eroded in 2006, when Hizballah was able to withstand the Israeli onslaught, force a cease-fire and claim victory in theprocess. That surely emboldened Hamas, which intermittently sent rockets into southern Israel and finally prompted Israel to respond in force. As respected Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the Hebrew daily
, "A country that is afraid to deal with Hamas won't be able either to deter Iran or tosafeguard its interests in dealing with Syria, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority."But the cold reality is that eventually Israel may need to look not to "deal" with Hamas so much as do a deal with it. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he doesn't intend to topple Hamas; he knows Israel can't fillthe vacuum of leadership that its elimination would produce in Gaza. Neither can Mahmoud Abbas, Israel'spreferred Palestinian leader, who is fading into the background in the West Bank. So Israel has said it will be satisfied if Hamas stops shooting rockets and an international force polices the Egyptian border to keepthe militants from re-arming themselves with weapons smuggled through tunnels.Hamas says it will agree to a truce if Israel retreats from Gaza and loosens the economic choke hold that hasstrangled the 1.5 million Palestinians who live on the sliver of land along the Mediterranean. After weeks of global outrage over the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza, any mediator — France, the EuropeanUnion, Turkey and Egypt are all auditioning for the role — will insist that Israel end its 18-month blockade. What then? Like Hizballah, Hamas will declare itself victorious: not only will it have survived a directassault by a far superior military force, but it will also have freed Gazans from Israeli tyranny. As an added bonus, any economic revival of Gaza would put money into Hamas' coffers. But Israel would gain some breathing space and force Hamas to prove it can actually govern and maintain stability in Gaza rather thanheap blame entirely on Israel.
The Specter of Iran
One indirect objective of the Gaza offensive might have been to warn off Israel's other nonstate militant foe:Hizballah. While the Lebanese group has been cheering on Hamas from the sidelines, it has refrained fromentering the fray. Hizballah may have a stockpile of new rockets, but Israeli generals hope Gaza will serve asa cautionary example of what would happen if it used them. This is a reassuring thought, but it remains to