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Is regime change the ultimate goal?
Israel is playing a 'wait and see' game to test Hamas's resolve and international opinion, but it is a high-risk strategy that could backfire
Israeli politicians have talked for so long about a possible large-scale invasion of Gaza to confront Hamas that it has been easy to be lulled into thinking it would never actually happen. Now that it is underway, it looks as if the timing, from Israel's perspective, could be a lot worse. And not just because of the clear winter weather in which its forces have rolled into the Strip.
Globally, for example, it has a window afforded by the last two weeks of a fundamentally supportive White House and – though this is less important – the opening of a Czech EU presidency which is hardly less so. For all the calls for an immediate ceasefire, Israel – Defence Minister Ehud Barak's brief flirtation with the idea last week excepted – clearly believes it has enough leeway from Western powers to continue expanding its operation for now.
It nevertheless carries serious risks – acknowledged yesterday by Israeli analysts across a broad political spectrum. Polling before the ground offensive, but after the air attacks began, reinforced Mr Barak's initial hesitation: while a narrow majority supported the continued air offensive, only 19 per cent were in favour of one on the ground.
Doubtless that reflects the searing experience of the 2006 Lebanon war and would be transformed if there is a clear military success with a minimum of Israeli casualties. But it is a reminder that Israeli ministers – including Mr Barak, whose poll ratings rose impressively as a result of Operation Cast Lead last week – are playing for high stakes.