Reports that open areas near Tel Aviv or waters off its coast were struck by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have transformed the politics and psychology of the conflict, making a major Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip much more likely.
The interest of Israeli politicians in striking a tough pose in advance of an election is straightforward. But the intentions of those in Gaza who know full well what the Israeli response is likely to be, and are deliberately provoking the strongest reaction they can, are less clear-cut. One potential motivation might be to call the bluff of the new Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
Morsi, who is ideologically aligned with his fellow Muslim Brothers in Hamas, has in fact been conducting a foreign policy towards Gaza that is, if anything, tougher than that of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, including the destruction of many smuggling tunnels. Morsi has thus far been protected from a public opinion backlash in Egypt by his Islamist credentials.
However, a widescale incursion by Israel in Gaza remotely resembling the "Cast Lead" operation that began in December 2008, which took the lives of almost 1,500 Palestinians, would completely call his bluff. He wouldn't be able to keep pretending to be staking out a new foreign policy while continuing, or even toughening, Egypt's traditional stratagems. And in all likelihood, he would be forced to begin to seriously recalibrate relations with Israel to the benefit of Hamas, which has been waiting impatiently, and thus far in vain, for some practical dividend from his presidential victory.
Qatar kicked the ball off in the new game with the official visit from its Emir to Gaza a few weeks ago, almost daring other Arab states, particularly Egypt, to follow suit by recognizing the political and diplomatic legitimacy of Hamas. Given the public outcry over Israeli attacks on Gaza, Morsi has already recalled his ambassador to Tel Aviv and has apparently instructed his Prime Minister to visit Gaza tomorrow in his official capacity.
Until now, it appeared that Israel's preferred strategic response to the violence that had growing over recent weeks was to simultaneously escalate by assassinating Hamas's military commander Ahmed Jabari, and prepare for the contingency of a limited ground offensive. As I have explained elsewhere, the increase in rocket attacks against Israel in recent months is linked to an internal power struggle within Hamas; an attempt to shift the decision-making authority within the organization to the political and military leaders in Gaza and away from the Politburo scattered throughout Arab capitals.
Jabari's assassination was clearly meant not only as an escalation by Israel, but a message that if Hamas's change of policy meant that its commander would no longer be preventing attacks on Israel, he would be eliminated. At the same time, Israel was strongly signaling that any action it was preparing on the ground would be limited compared to the "Cast Lead."
But at least some forces in Gaza evidently have no interest in containing the conflict. By targeting Israel's main city, militants in Gaza have performed a major escalation of their own, at least as provocative as Israel's assassination of Jabari. Israel, it appears, escalated, but wanted a limited war. Others, it seems, want a major war. Whoever is funding, arming and encouraging the factions in Gaza that are firing missiles at Tel Aviv clearly have no interest in a contained or limited conflict.
In the run-up to the January election, Israeli politicians, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, will now be tempted to launch a much more open-ended military intervention in Gaza in order to be able to claim they are taking decisive action. The voices that have been urging much more far-reaching Israeli military measures in Gaza, such as Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter, who, on November 11 said, "Israel must perform a reformatting of Gaza, and rearrange it," will be greatly emboldened. Those, such as Yosef Kuperwasser, director of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, who point out that no amount of war will resolve Israel's dilemmas regarding Gaza, will be very much on the defensive.
Even the limited conflict thus far between Israel and Gaza has put Morsi in an exposed and difficult position. The kind of intensified conflict being provoked both by Israel's high profile assassination and efforts to attack Tel Aviv itself by Gaza militants will quickly make his position untenable. His party's ideology and Egyptian public opinion will inevitably collide with Egypt's national interests and the traditional policies he has so far been rather scrupulously maintaining.
He can always try to play the role of broker, and negotiate cease-fires and truces. But it's clear that Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza, and their international backers, are no longer willing to wait for the Morsi victory dividend. They want Egypt to move in Hamas's direction, right away.
Alternatively, those targeting Tel Aviv might be seeking to outflank both Morsi and Hamas, and ultimately strengthen the small but growing "Jihadist" movements in Gaza. Chief among these is Islamic Jihad, which is still tied to Iran, and which has claimed "credit" for the attack on Tel Aviv, but there are other much smaller and much more extreme "Jihadist" groups gaining ground in Gaza.
All of those who are escalating this conflict—whether Israeli politicians looking at reelection, or militants in Gaza trying to force the hand of Egypt's new president or achieve some other strategic results—are gambling with the lives of ordinary people. With senior Hamas figures assassinated and rockets now falling in or near Tel Aviv, political cynicism on all sides has brought us to the brink of a potential calamity, above all for the long-suffering people of Gaza.