Today's Papers

Israeli Troops Cut Gaza in Half

The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsboxlead with Israeli troops and tanks pushing deeper into the Gaza Strip as the ground invasion continues with no end in sight. Under heavy protection from air and naval power, Israeli soldiers surrounded Gaza’s main city and essentially cut the strip in half. For their part, Hamas militants continued to fire rockets into Israel. As the Palestinian death toll passed the 500 mark, there were mounting international calls for a cease-fire, but an Israeli military official warned that the offensive would not end “in hours or a few days.”

The Washington Postoff-leads the news out of Gaza and leads with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration to be Commerce secretary in the President-elect Barack Obama’s administration. Richardson said that an ongoing investigation into how a political donor received a lucrative state contract would have “forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process.” Richardson’s withdrawal “marked the first visible crack in what had been one of the smoothest presidential transitions in modern history,” declares the Post.

The LAT hears word that at least 35 Palestinians died yesterday. The Israeli military announced that one of its soldiers had been killed and denied claims by Hamas that it had killed nine, and captured two, Israeli soldiers. The NYT says that after a week of an intense aerial campaign, “the first 24 hours of ground combat appeared to have been comparatively restrained.” Israeli troops have so far avoided Gaza’s major population centers. USAT helpfully explains that in Gaza’s most crowded areas, “about 1.4 million people are packed into an area roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C.” If Israeli forces do decide to enter Gaza’s densely populated urban areas, it “would probably prompt a fierce and bloody street-to-street battle against militant forces with intimate knowledge of the dense urban terrain,” notes the LAT.

USAT points out that by splitting the strip in half, “Israel is trying to choke off Hamas’ supply lines.”  But as the WP highlights, that has also made it more difficult to get relief supplies to residents of northern Gaza. U.N. officials insist Israel is lying when it says that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Meanwhile, the United States blocked the U.N. Security Council from issuing a statement calling for an immediate cease-fire. The NYT points out that the Security Council will be under greater pressure to act with the scheduled arrival in New York today of a delegation led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

While many have compared the current operation to the disastrous 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the WSJ says that Israel seems to have learned some lessons. As opposed to 2006, Israeli leaders “have set out clearly defined—and relatively modest—expectations,” and they’ve also spent days preparing the public for a long fight.

In an analysis piece, the NYT notes that many Middle East experts speculate that one of the reasons why Israel decided to attack now is that it knew it could count on the support of the Bush administration. Although President-elect Barack Obama has expressed support for Israel in the past, Israeli officials still don’t know whether the incoming administration “would match the Bush administration’s unconditional endorsement.” Even if Obama proves to be very pro-Israel, it’s likely that Israeli officials didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with the new administration by forcing the new president to respond to a military campaign during his first days in office.

The NYT fronts a dispatch that describes the scenes of desperation at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. In the days after the air campaign began, hundreds of Hamas fighters streamed into the hospital, but yesterday “there appeared not to be a single one,” as the casualties were “women, children, and men who had been with children.” One Norwegian doctor tells the paper that the hospital faces a severe shortage of supplies and, like the rest of Gaza, is running low on fuel. Although it’s possible that the injured Hamas fighters were being treated at another hospital, the NYT also points out that many ambulance drivers refuse to go into the most dangerous areas. The LAT reports that one paramedic was killed when an  ambulance funded by Oxfam was hit by an Israeli shell.

In a piece inside, the WP takes a look at the harrowing question that many Gaza residents are facing as the Israeli invasion continues: “Flee the shelling and shooting, or hole up inside their homes and hope for the best?” It’s an impossible question to answer because there seems to be no place immune to Israeli fire, and residents are trapped inside Gaza.

“The essential dilemma Israel faces is this,” writes Max Boot in the WSJ, “It can’t ignore Hamas’s attacks,” but it also can’t “do what it takes to wipe out the enemy, because of the constraints imposed by its own public.” In the end, Israel “is forced to fight an unsatisfying war of attrition with Hamas, Hezbollah and other entities bent on its destruction.” Once Israel leaves, it’s likely that Hamas will rebuild, “forcing the Israelis to go back in the future.”

In a statement, Obama said that he accepted Richardson’s decision to withdraw “with deep regret.” And while everyone insists that no one in Obama’s team pressured the governor to reach the decision, the NYT says that the president-elect didn’t try to persuade Richardson to change his mind. A federal grand jury is currently investigating whether Richardson or members of his staff pressured state employees to give CDR Financial Products two lucrative consulting contracts worth around $1.5 million. The NYT details that the company’s president gave around $100,000 to two political action committees started by Richardson as well as $10,000 to his 2005 re-election campaign.

The WP says the investigation “heated up considerably last month,” and FBI agents who were conducting a background check on Richardson for the Cabinet position apparently warned the Obama team about the seriousness of the situation. Richardson’s withdrawal could raise questions about the thoroughness of Obama’s vetting process and has the potential to disappoint Latinos since the New Mexico governor was slated to become the highest-profile Hispanic in Obama’s administration. It also leaves Obama with a gaping hole in his economic team at a time when he is working with his economic advisers to persuade Congress to pass a huge stimulus package soon after Inauguration Day.

The NYT and WSJ front word that Obama wants to include around $300 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses in his economic stimulus plan. While the package was expected to include some type of tax cut, the size is larger than expected. By making tax cuts account for about 40 percent of the stimulus package, Obama thinks it will be easier to win over reluctant Republicans who have kept themselves busy decrying the plan as a blank check for government spending. At the same time, Democratic leaders in Congress warned that it’s unlikely the stimulus package will be ready for Obama’s signature immediately after he is sworn in, as was the plan initially.

In a rare feat, John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations, publishes an op-ed piece in both the WP and the NYT. Along with John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general, Bolton argues in the NYT that Obama, unlike past presidents, shouldn’t forget the Constitution’s Treaty Clause that requires treaties to be approved by two-thirds of the Senate. Yes, that’s right, Yoo, who spent much of his time in the administration arguing that the president had pretty much unfettered power to run the so-called war on terror as he saw fit, now says that a simple congressional majority isn’t enough to pass a treaty because the Constitution must be respected at all costs.

Far more interesting is Bolton’s op-ed piece in the WP, in which he puts forward an out-of-the-box suggestion to deal with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bolton says that we need to scrap the idea of a “two-state solution” that has been the goal for so many years because it’s simply not working. While recognizing that it would be “unpopular and difficult to implement,” Bolton writes that the United States should advocate a “three-state” approach, “where Gaza is returned to Egyptian control and the West Bank in some configuration reverts to Jordanian sovereignty.” Of course, neither Egypt nor Jordan is too eager to make the Palestinian problem their own, but perhaps they could be persuaded if other countries promise to help. “The Palestinian and Israeli peoples deserve a little glasnost and perestroika from the outside world,” writes Bolton. “Either we do better, conceptually and operationally, or Iran will be happy to fill the vacuum.”