So what outcome does Israel seek? What is Israel hoping to achieve through this assault? First, Israel is very likely seeking to restore its reputation after the debacle of the 2006 Lebanon War. While that war was on balance better for Israel than many people perceived it to be, it is perception that matters for Israel's deterrence posture. Seccond, while the rockets launched into Israel by Hamas may not be particularly effective in killing Israelis, they are extremely effective at highlighting Israel's defenselessness. No government anywhere in the world could long survive under constant rocket attack, even if few casualties resulted, as a government that is seen as unable to protect its people cannot be effective. Given the alternative of a Netanyahu-led Likud government (which most Israeli polls show to be the likely outcome of the February elections), the centrist-Kadima government had to respond to demonstrate its ability to protect the people of Israel and hold on to power. The Israeli response very well may strengthen the Labor Party and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (currently Israel's minister of defense).
But these goals are strategic, higher-order goals that while perhaps important are not directly tied to current assault. What outcome does Israel want vis-a-vis Hamas and Gaza? Destroying the rockets is one, but that is an ephemeral goal. Destroyed rockets can be resupplied. Toppling Hamas is another possibility, but that could be exceedingly dangerous. Fatah has been largely routed in Gaza, and if Hamas is brought down it's not at all clear what would replace it. Anarchy in Gaza may be even worse for Israel than Hamas.
What is more likely is that Israel is seeking two goals, one short-term and one long-term. In the short-term Israel is likely hoping to force Hamas to accept cease-fire terms that are more favorable than the one that recently ended. While Israel certainly didn't entirely uphold its end of the agreement by failing to allow sufficient supplies into Gaza, Hamas didn't carry its weight either by refusing to crack down on militants launching rockets, particularly in recent days. In the long-run, Israel may be hoping to expose Hamas as ineffective in its responses to Israel and incapable of protecting and providing for the welfare of the Palestinians.
The problem is, perhaps, that Hamas's popularity may have been waning before the assault. As Daoud Kuttab writes in today's Washington Post, Hamas has been on a steady decline since coming to power on Gaza:
Things began to sour when Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, but even then, Hamas enjoyed considerable domestic support -- and much goodwill externally. Then the movement turned down every legitimate offer from its nationalist PLO rivals and Egyptian mediators to pursue reconciliation, and support for it began to slip.
Things got worse in November when a carefully planned national unity effort from the Egyptians failed because, at the very last minute, Hamas's leaders refused to show up in Cairo. Failure to accept this roundtable invitation greatly upset the Egyptians, and they and other Arab leaders scolded Hamas publicly. Omar Suleiman, the head of the Egyptian intelligence service who was organizing the meeting, termed Hamas's reasons for rebuffing the invitation "unwarranted excuses." Hamas sought for its leader a seating position equivalent to the Palestinian president's, and it wanted Hamas security prisoners held in the West Bank to be released. Palestinian nationalists insist that Hamas's rejection of unity talks was solely to avoid the PLO's demand for new presidential and parliamentary elections.
A poll carried out afterward by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center showed that most Palestinians blamed Hamas for the failure of the talks. The survey, which was sponsored by the German Fredrich Ebert Foundation, found that 35.3 percent of respondents believed Hamas bore more responsibility for the stalemate. Fatah was blamed by 17.9 percent, and 12.3 percent said both Fatah and Hamas were responsible.
The lack of international support since the 2006 elections, followed by this rebuff to Gaza's only Arab neighbor, Egypt, compounded the deterioration of Hamas's internal support. By November, the survey showed, only 16.6 percent of Palestinians supported Hamas, compared with nearly 40 percent favoring Fatah. The decline in support for Hamas has been steady: A year earlier, the same pollster showed that Hamas's support was at 19.7 percent; in August 2007, it was at 21.6 percent; in March 2007, it was at 25.2 percent; and in September 2006, backing for the Islamists stood at 29.7 percent.
Now, Kuttab writes, Hamas will reap the PR benefits of the Israeli assault, once again assuming the mantle of The Ones Who Stand Up To Israel and:
has renewed its standing in the Arab world, secured international favor further afield and succeeded in scuttling indirect Israeli-Syrian talks and direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. While it is not apparent how this violent confrontation will end, it is abundantly clear that the Islamic Hamas movement has been brought back from near political defeat while moderate Arab leaders have been forced to back away from their support for any reconciliation with Israel."
Israel must act to counter this development, largely by pointing to conditions in the West Bank. But pointing is not enough. Israel should move to improve conditions in the West Bank, and not just ones that amount to cosmetic changes. Rather, Israel needs to make clear the benefits of following Fatah's path as well as the consequences of following that of Hamas.
Israel should immediately announce a halt to all funding for settlement building in the West Bank, dismantle all illegal settlements, and lift all but the most necessary checkpoints and roadblocks that have made life in the West Bank so difficult. Only by making clear the implications of the choices before the Palestinians can Israel hope to obtain any long-term benefits from the attack on Gaza.