JERUSALEM — As Israel clamps down on the Gaza Strip and prepares for the possibility of sending thousands of soldiers into the Palestinian area controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas, its leaders are facing a diplomatic conundrum: They have clear military goals but no political vision for how to end the confrontation.
"I don't see how this ends well, even if, in two weeks time, it looks like it ends well," said Daniel Levy, a political analyst who once served as an adviser to Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister who's now leading the military campaign against Hamas as Israel's defense minister.
Israel's expanding air strikes already have delivered a costly blow to the Hamas rulers in Gaza by killing hundreds of the group's soldiers and decimating its network of government security compounds.
Beyond that, though, Israeli leaders haven't explained what could bring the violence to a halt. Once the smoke clears, the rubble is removed and the dead are buried, Hamas is still almost certain to remain in control of the Gaza Strip, and its hard-line leaders are already vowing to strike back.
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"To the extent to which there's a scenario where Israel wins a tactical round, it will again lose a strategic round," said Levy, a senior fellow at The New America Foundation, a liberal policy institute in Washington, D.C. that's providing ideas and personnel to the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama.
Israel's ongoing campaign is already creating an early foreign policy test for Obama, who's pledged to make Middle East diplomacy an early priority when he takes office next month.
On Sunday, Obama chief lieutenant David Axelrod offered tacit backing for Israel, blaming Hamas for sparking the conflict as the Bush administration also has done. If Obama continues to offer similar unqualified support for Israeli military action, it could make it harder for him to demonstrate to the Arab world that he's a more even-handed middleman than Bush has been.
Israeli officials Sunday said their top priority is to destabilize Hamas and cripple its ability to keep firing the crude rockets into southern Israel that have killed seven Israelis in the last two years.
Here the Israeli government appears to have learned a lesson from its bungled 2006 war in Lebanon against fighters from Hezbollah, another militant Islamic group. There, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed to achieve his main goals: Forcing Hezbollah to return the two Israeli soldiers whose capture sparked the 34-day war and silencing rocket fire from Shiite Muslim militants in southern Lebanon.
"What we want to do is significantly reduce the rocket fire," said Miri Eisin, a reserve colonel in the Israeli Army and spokeswoman for the Israeli government. "If Hamas says no more rocket fire, then we'll see where that goes."
Olmert and his government, however, refuse to negotiate directly with Hamas until the group, which is supported by Iran and Syria, renounces its goal of destroying Israel.
The standoff worsened last year when, after winning 2006 democratic elections that were backed by the Bush administration, Hamas seized military control of Gaza in a humiliating rout of forces loyal to pragmatic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Since then, Israel and the U.S. have been trying to provide political support to Abbas by trying to revive stagnant peace talks and helping to rebuild his security forces in the West Bank, between Israel and Jordan.
The goal is to show the Palestinian voters who propelled Hamas to political power in 2006 that Abbas and his pro-Western government are a better alternative.
"We have a dialogue with the Palestinian Authority," said Eisin. "You don't have an alternative to that at the end of the day."
If anything, however, the U.S.-Israeli effort has pushed Abbas and Hamas farther apart and made re-uniting the rival Palestinian factions more difficult.
That leaves Israel, the United States and Abbas with few diplomatic options: Hamas refuses to abandon its pledge to destroy Israel while Israel and the U.S. refuse to talk to Hamas until the group does. Abbas, meanwhile, refuses to reconcile with Hamas until the group surrenders control of Gaza.
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