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Israel reaches crossroads in its Gaza offensive

JERUSALEM — Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip began with a simply stated goal shared by the senior leadership: cripple Hamas' ability, and break its will, to fire rockets across the border.

Seventeen days later, the goal remains elusive, the military operation has slowed and the political consensus behind it is fraying.

After hundreds of airstrikes and a thundering ground invasion, a Palestinian death toll nearing 1,000 and international outcry over the bloodshed, Israeli leaders are furiously debating how and when the offensive should end.

None of the options offers quiet on the Gaza front. They range from a unilateral withdrawal to a full-scale, bloody reoccupation of the Palestinian enclave that Israelis thought they had left behind more than three years ago.

The choices are complicated by bickering among the three officials — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — who ordered the offensive. Their relationship is strained by an election in which Livni and Barak are competing to replace Olmert.

Thousands of Israeli troops surrounding Gaza City are awaiting a political decision whether to retreat or charge into Hamas' urban stronghold.

A front-page headline Monday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz asked what many Israelis are thinking and Olmert's government itself is debating: "Quit while we're ahead?"

Among Israel's options:

Withdraw unilaterally.

Advocates of this course say Israel must respond to concerns across the world over civilian deaths in Gaza and the United Nations Security Council's call for a cease-fire. They worry that an ongoing offensive would pressure Israel to reach a formal cease-fire and tie its hands from fighting Hamas again. And they say such a deal would give legitimacy to Hamas, which advocates the Jewish state's destruction.

Seize Gaza-Egypt border.

The offensive would be expanded along Gaza's nine-mile-long border with Egypt and choke off Hamas' weapons-smuggling pipeline. Israeli troops would face attacks by Hamas militants in Rafah, a city bisected by the border and the center of the smuggling trade. The capture of a single soldier or a rocket that killed many could undermine for support in Israel for the operation.

Reoccupy the Gaza Strip.

Tens of thousands of Israeli army reservists would enter the 140-square-mile Palestinian enclave, escalating the offensive into full-scale war.

Debate over reoccupying the strip has gained momentum since the offensive began. Several high-ranking Israeli officials argue that the real aim of the offensive should be to remove Hamas from power.

Hold the fort.

The army could continue to stand pat, making only tentative advances while Israel seeks a cease-fire. But commanders are increasingly uncomfortable with this position and are pressing to expand the offensive.

Still, Olmert, Livni and Barak are deadlocked, torn by conflicting political interests as Israel's Feb. 10 parliamentary election approaches.

Olmert is pressing for a broad escalation, to win better terms for a truce. Livni aspires to lead Israel to a peace agreement with Abbas' moderate, secular administration in the West Bank. She wants to avoid an accord with Hamas that would undermine Abbas' standing among Palestinians. Barak advocates a cease-fire pact.

Israel's best option for ending the offensive is a cease-fire that would constrain Hamas' ability to rearm.

But Egypt's truce proposal would also reopen Gaza's borders for fuel and goods, ending a lengthy Israeli blockade that Egypt supports. Israeli leaders worry that ending Gaza's isolation would boost Hamas' prestige without breaking its motivation to fight another day.

TROOPS ADVANCE: Israeli troops advanced into Gaza suburbs for the first time early today, residents said, hours after Olmert warned militants of an "iron fist" unless they agree to Israel's terms to end the fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boasted Monday that he had called President Bush on Thursday and convinced him that the United States should not vote for a pending U.N. Security Council resolution urging a cease-fire in Gaza.

Olmert said Bush's agreement "embarrassed" U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice because the resolution was one that she had "cooked up, she organized, she formulated, she maneuvered," according to comments reported by Israel Radio.

"And she was left pretty embarrassed, abstaining on a draft resolution she organized herself," Olmert added.

Sean McCormack, Rice's chief spokesman, said she had decided not to vote for the resolution a day earlier. But some analysts said Olmert's remarks would be received with displeasure in Washington, because among other things, he suggested that Israel has been directing U.S. policy on the Middle East.

Israel reaches crossroads in its Gaza offensive 01/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 7:28am]
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