Beware a weak and unprincipled government, facing an election that it is likely to lose. There is a whiff of political opportunism about Israel's decision to subject Gaza to massive, deadly air raids which have killed hundreds of Palestinians.
Arguments about how many Hamas rockets have recently penetrated southern Israel, and how deep, are, in that sense, almost a sideshow. As important is that Ehud Olmert's embattled government goes to the polls in February. Both his successor as leader of Kadima, Tzipi Livni, and the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, appear to believe a show of muscle may be the best way of seeing off Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.
External factors also appear to have played their role in setting the timetable. The US is in an interregnum, and as George Bush never showed much inclination to lean on the Israelis during the high days of his presidency, it is no surprise that he is saying nothing new now. Britain, too, mumbles platitudes.
Pity the Gazans, for even their Arab neighbours do and say little. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt detests Hamas, fears its contaminating influence and may wink at a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza, which the call-up of Israeli reservists suggests is an option.
The tragedy is that days ago on the West Bank, there were signals that 2008 might end on a marginally higher note than its predecessor. A fall in unemployment, the highest hotel occupancy for years, and Palestinian predictions that 1.25 million tourists and pilgrims will have visited Bethlehem by the end of the year contributed to a sense of – relatively – good cheer.
This faint prosperity has all been fuelled, of course, by international donor-funded salaries for Palestinian Authority staff, which account for 27 per cent of the territory's GDP. Still, recent developments appeared to provide a welcome, if tantalising, reminder of the potential for a Palestinian economy that would be unleashed if peace with Israel could be achieved.
Another under-reported story of the West Bank in 2008 has been the largely successful deployment of US and British-trained Palestinian security forces in Jenin, Nablus and Hebron. While this may still fall short of the kind of security guarantees the Israeli government would require, it can hardly deny that the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salaam Fayad, is making strenuous efforts in the West Bank to fulfil its security obligations under the so-called road map to peace. Now those tentative advances are being thrown into the balance by Mr Olmert's macho posturing and his almost certainly vain attempt to rid Israel of the Hamas menace by force.
How and why he believes a sustained aerial bombardment of Gaza is going to engineer the collapse of Hamas remains unclear. It ought, in fact, to have become clear that the earlier economic blockade of Gaza, while inflicting misery, was not achieving its political objectives. What Gaza needs is not palls of smoke and the laments of the wounded but an urgent revival of its once entrepreneurial economy. Only that can swiftly bring the kind of negotiated solution that will give real hope to Palestinians, including those in Gaza.
Barack Obama has a daunting list of problems in his in-tray. We must hope he realises a change of strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a priority and that he can discourage his Israeli allies from using the kind of bloody but counterproductive tactics to which they are now resorting.Reuse content