The Israelis attacked now because of two non-military cycles: the news cycle and the presidential cycle. This was like a war by an astrologer: the stars had to be in exactly the right position before the Apaches could start blasting and the Merkavas could roll.
The most important cycle of all is the news cycle. This war happened during international media dead week, between Christmas and New Year. Ordinary people are drunk or hungover or snowed in, and the people who matter, the media players, are off in Cancun and Phuket, soaking up rum and sun with their blackberries turned off. They’re not going to bum out their call girls watching the news from Gaza.
And the Israelis wanted a time when everybody was distracted for a simple reason: asymmetrical war isn’t pretty. That’s the same reason they won’t let camera crews into Gaza. To do this kind of war, you have to kill a lot of civilians, because the whole civilian/military distinction doesn’t really apply. If your neighbor is a mid-ranking officer in the military wing of Hamas, the best way to kill him is while he sleeps, before he can arm himself, deploy his men and maybe inflict casualties. Thanks to years of excellent intelligence on Gaza, the Israelis know exactly who’s where at pretty much any minute of any day. And they have attack helicopters hovering over it non-stop, ready to send a Hellfire missile down to take out anybody who might help organize a counterattack.
The other cycle is more of a gamble: the presidential cycle. I can’t believe nobody’s saying the obvious here: the Israelis want to do this now, once and for all, while Bush is still in office. They know that Bush will let them do whatever they want. Bush and Cheney are literally more extreme than about half of the Israeli electorate. They’ve never objected to anything Israel wants to do except when the Israelis wanted to talk to the Syrians. As long as it involves blowing stuff up, Bush is guaranteed to be on their side.
So the planets aligned perfectly for Israel, not so much Age of Aquarius way as Zero Hour, last chance to blow up Gaza before Obama comes in.
Will Obama be more hardnosed with the Israelis? I doubt it. Why would he? You’re not supposed to say out loud that there’s a big rich Israeli lobby, but everybody knows there is. And more to the point, what’s their counterweight? Who cares about the Palestinians, even in the Arab world, never mind DC? So there’s a big net gain to any US politician who backs Israel and no reason at all to back their opponents.
So I don’t see why the Israelis are so worried about Obama. Still, a military planner’s job is to be paranoid and the Israeli staff has decided that since Bush is a sure thing and the new guy is an unknown quantity, why not do it now?