At hot war in Gaza was not how Israel was supposed to appear on the strategic agenda of Barack Obama when he takes office in January. Its leaders had hoped to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner of the new Administration, which Israel hopes will make Iran's nuclear program its overriding priority in the Middle East. Instead, the weekend bloodbath in Gaza - the deadliest since Israel occupied the territory in 1967 - casts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an urgent crisis demanding a response from Washington. It also highlights the failure of the Bush Administration's and Israel's policies on Hamas in Gaza.
The air strikes that began Saturday, in which Palestinians claim at least 280 people have been killed, marked a dramatic escalation of the high-stakes poker game between Israel and Hamas. Over the past seven weeks, each side has calculated the odds of outbidding the other. Hamas - and the civilian population it represents - paid a heavy price in human casualties over the weekend, but it may nonetheless retain a strategic advantage. The radical Palestinian movement that governs Gaza appears to have underestimated Israel's readiness to launch a military campaign in response to an escalation of Palestinian rocket fire onto Israel's southern towns and cities. This is, however, an Israeli election season in which polls show voters moving so quickly to the right that even the hawkish front runner, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is losing support to parties more extreme than his own. Still, the factors that restrained Israel from launching an attack on Gaza until now remain in place, and the likelihood of an escalation in the confrontation in the days and weeks ahead - and the negative regional backlash it may promote - will probably mark a diplomatic setback for Israel. (Read TIME's top 10 news stories of the year.)
Israel launched Saturday's strike knowing that Hamas would respond with a fusillade of rockets, possibly using some of the longer-range weapons smuggled into Gaza over the past year to strike Israeli towns such as Ashdod and Ashkelon. Hamas may even activate suicide-bomber cells in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. Israel had prepared for the first possibility by deploying additional air-raid protection in towns as far as 25 miles (40 km) from the Gaza border. And it will probably follow up the air strikes with ground attacks aimed at neutralizing as much as it can of Hamas' military capability. But Hamas has good reason to expect that Israel's military campaign will be limited, and it believes it can come out ahead in the strategic equation despite the heavy cost in blood that will be paid by its own leaders and militants, as well as by Palestinian civilians.
The rocket barrage by Hamas that preceded Israel's air strikes began with the unraveling of a cease-fire, brokered by Egypt, that had been in place since June. Although Hamas said the truce expired on Dec. 19, it began firing rockets earlier, in response to an Israeli raid on Nov. 5 aimed at stopping Palestinians from tunneling under the boundary fence. Hamas needed a truce, but one on more favorable terms than what had applied in the preceding six months. During that time, Israel had largely stopped military attacks in Gaza but kept in place a crippling economic siege as part of a Bush Administration–backed campaign to pressure the Palestinian civilian population to overthrow the Hamas government it had elected in 2006. (See pictures of the Middle East crisis.)
The cease-fire proved to be untenable. "Calm for calm" - as Israelis call the agreement to simply refrain from military strikes and rocket fire - didn't work for Hamas, since it was unable to deliver economic relief to the long-suffering Palestinian civilian population. Indeed, the renewed campaign of rocket fire by Hamas was widely interpreted as a bargaining tactic aimed at securing more favorable truce terms, particularly lifting the economic siege. Israel, in the meantime, suffered from confusion in its goals. On the one hand, it wanted to destroy the Hamas government; on the other hand, it sought to coexist with the movement in order to ensure security along Israel's southern flank - hence the combination of "calm for calm" and the unrelenting economic siege. But even "calm for calm" represented what Israel saw as an unacceptable humiliation, as Hamas continued to hold the kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit as a hostage - for more than two years now - to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Israel's current offensive underscores the strategic quandary it faces in Gaza. By striking Gaza now, Israel has pushed the conflict with the Palestinians back to the top of the priorities facing the Obama Administration. Israel's offensive in Gaza will provoke an upsurge in hostility on the streets toward the U.S. and Israel from Lebanon to Pakistan, making life difficult for those inclined to cooperate with Washington (foremost among them, the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas) while offering an opportunity to U.S. foes to improve their own standing in Arab and Muslim public opinion. President Obama will take office with the Israeli-Palestinian issue once again clearly functioning as a driver of regional instability, demanding action - and, perhaps, new thinking - from the incoming Administration. (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.)
There are other strategic downsides to Israel's launching a military offensive in Gaza at this time. Israel has acted in response to pressures to protect its citizenry from rocket attacks, but it is probable that such attacks will continue and possibly intensify as a result. That will draw Israeli ground troops into Gaza, where they, too, will suffer casualties at the hands of Palestinian gunmen. The Palestinian civilian death toll will be far higher, which will, in turn, isolate Israel on the diplomatic front - even those Arab regimes that would have been discreetly pleased to see Hamas dealt a harsh blow (because they fear the Islamist movement is becoming a model for those challenging their own governments) will be forced to distance themselves.
The air strikes will also give President Abbas no choice but to break off peace talks with Israel, although neither the Israelis nor most Palestinians treated them as any kind of serious peace process. Still, the Israeli offensive is likely to boost Palestinian political support for Hamas and to further weaken Abbas. In the weeks preceding the strikes, Israeli security officials warned that there is no end game, because a limited campaign would be unlikely to eliminate Hamas in Gaza, and a full-blown ground invasion would find Israel forced to reoccupy the territory on a long-term basis.
Hamas knows that Israel's military intervention is unlikely to be a ground war to the finish. It will hope that, like Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006, simply surviving an Israeli onslaught will help it emerge politically victorious. Israel will hope to sufficiently bloody the movement to put it on the defensive and make its leaders prioritize their own physical survival over pressing Israel to ease the siege. And hundreds more people could die in the weeks ahead as the two sides look to win the battle of wills. The renewed confrontation is likely to strengthen the far-right forces in Israeli politics and end the largely symbolic Bush Administration–orchestrated peace talks between Israel and President Abbas. (See pictures of Gaza on the brink.)
So, when he sits down at his desk in the Oval Office in January, President Barack Obama will be confronted with compelling evidence of the failure of the Bush Administration's and Israel's policy on Hamas rule in Gaza - with an urgency to bring fresh ideas to the table.