Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz marked the three-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead on Tuesday by hailing it "an excellent operation that achieved deterrence for Israel vis-a-vis Hamas." However, he warned, cracks have emerged in that deterrence over time, and a second round of fighting in the Gaza Strip is not a matter of choice for Israel.
Such a round must be initiated by Israel and must be "swift and painful," he said, adding, "I do not advise Hamas to test our mettle." [emphasis mine]
Since becoming Chief of Staff, Gantz has argued that Israel must respond to any rocket attacks with extreme force. He has also hinted that future Israeli actions will not be confined to airstrikes: "we shall in the end need to move to broader, more aggressive action in the Gaza Strip" he told Knesset members recently.
"The harder you hit them, the longer they stay quiet," as a tsarist general one said. It's hard to tell if Gantz is merely trying to cow Hamas, or if he is really intent on launching Cast Lead II in the near future.
Contrary to my expectations this summer, Israel did not use the Eilat attacks as an excuse to undertake a full-scale operation in Gaza, even though there were calls for regime change there among Israeli politicians and former military leaders. Ynet reported in November 2011 that that the IDF has been training its combat engineers for a possible resumption of hostilities in Gaza. Israel's latest consigment of American-made bunker busters - ostensibly for a strike against Iran - could also be used against targets in Gaza, such as the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that, according to the IDF, are a serving as conduits for a stream of stolen Libyan arms. And as war warning signs, neither the trainings nor the bunker busters raise new alarms.
For now, I think Gantz is saber-rattling. Israel is hoping to scare or wrongfoot Hamas as it scores political successes through the prisoner exchanges, the electoral success of Egypt's Islamist bloc, entry to the PLO and new unity talks with Fatah. A more conciliatory Hamas is not what Likud wants to deal with. The best way to undermine Hamas's nonviolent political successes would be to put Hamas in awkward position over the actions of Islamic Jihad (which Israel struck just this week) or another militant organization. Hamas's leadership would be an awkward position of having to manage feelings of militant nationalism that it has cultivated in order to secure potentially ephemeral political concessions. Its legitimacy would be at stake, but should it respond with violence, its survival would be in jeopardy.
Hamas will likely avoid the temptation to return to fighting. The Middle East is too politically fluid at the moment. But given the hawkishness of the "liberal" alternatives to Likud, as Dimi Reider points out, I am still convinced that the timing of Cast Lead II will be a question of when, not if. Israel would be more likely to use massive force against Gaza than Iran if it came down to an eleventh-hour choice for Defense Minister Barak. Israel's leadership has no doubt been encouraged by SecDef Leon Panetta and President Obama's public backpedalling on their reluctance to attack Iran. The U.S. could deal with Iran (an "October surprise," as some have suggested), leaving Israel a stronger hand to play against Hamas. The timing for any of these possible actions will greatly depend on how the 2012 U.S. presidential election progresses.
As for how the IDF will react to Hamas's announced new focus on popular demonstrations, Gantz's past comments about the Arab Spring offer some insight:
There is a focal player in the Middle East – the street – and it is clear to us that in the coming months we can find ourselves in broad popular demonstrations, which gain public resonance. The IDF is preparing for these demonstrations.
For this reason, we will act with great fire power and full force at the very beginning of the confrontation. Anything the camera can stand or could stand in the first three days of fighting – it will not be prepared to put up with thereafter.