War in Gaza is over, sort of – let the debate begin. These are the questions that Israelis, Palestinians and the greater Middle East will consider in the coming days (and the questions Israeli voters will consider) if the cease-fire holds:
Was the war a real testimony to the IDF’s strength and renewed competency – or was Hamas a weak enemy that presented no real challenge to the forces? This will be the question that determines whether Israel has really restored its deterrence and sent its neighbors the message that attempts to take out a supposedly weakened Israel is a bad idea.
Was it necessary to bomb and kill this number of civilians in Gaza or did Israel use excessive force that can’t be justified? While the operation was not controversial in Israel, where public support was wide and firm, the aftermath will bring to the fore questions related to the tragedy of civilians living in Gaza. This leads to the next question:
Was it wise to keep the war going for this long, or could Israel have ended it a week or ten days ago? Israelis will have to be convinced that the outcome would have been less favorable had Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire earlier.
On the other hand, could Israel have achieved more? Were we really on the verge of toppling Hamas and did we miss an opportunity? Likud Party leaders will argue that the IDF performed magnificently, but that on the strategic-diplomatic front (namely, those issues for which Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is responsible) Israel has failed to translate the military achievement into a clear victory.
Is the cease-fire going to last? The first couple of hours were not encouraging, but the IDF had already been expecting Hamas to keep firing for “one or two days,” so the test will really come later in the week. One of the ironies of the cease-fire is that Hamas still gets to decide if the agreements between Israel, Egypt and other parties (such as the U.S.) can really hold. If Hamas decides not to halt its fire, Israel will face complicated decisions, and international commitments will be tested.
Can the Egyptians be trusted to do more than promise robust preventive measures against weapon smuggling? Will it really act? Egypt’s determination to help Israel has been suspect in the past.
Why did Israel agree to stop the operation without a clear commitment that the abducted soldier Gilead Shalit will come home? This will be a question of little significance for international observers, but in Israel it is one of the topics that can turn public opinion against the government.
And the question most Israelis do not really care about, but that the international community will busy itself with: what are the implications of the Gaza operation for the peace process? The Palestinians will now face a dilemma: do they want to renew the work on a national unity government with Fatah and Hamas? If they do, the dilemma will shift to Israel: will it be willing to negotiate with such a government?