It appears Israel is preparing to implement its final option: break battle gridlock with the Palestinians and destroy them once and for all.
Rather than tolerate the continuation of random, spontaneous violence, the Sharon strategy will be to silence them entirely. It will require a massive military blow against the Palestinian political infrastructure. It will involve the decapitation of the Palestinian leadership and the exile or deaths of the political elite. Weapons caches will be sought and destroyed, communications facilities ruined. From Israel's standpoint, the Palestinian community must be isolated and controlled.
There is also a chance that Israel may apply this strategy to two other long-standing problems: the Syrian control of Lebanon and the potential Iraqi military threat against Israel.
International condemnation, including the potential for sanctions, will follow any Israeli action. From Israel's point of view, a broader strike carries minimal additional cost. The current absence of external constraints against Israel by the United States and regional neighbors may lead Sharon to consider expanding his elimination strategy against Syria and Iraq as well.
A confluence of factors, stemming from the Six Day War in 1967, is driving Israel toward such a massive military option.
Israel's national security requirements historically have exceeded the capacity of the nation's industrial plant. Israel's national strategy is predicated on a negative: at all costs avoiding a war of attrition it cannot wage indefinitely.
So Israel always has strived to maintain a massive technological edge over its enemies, primarily by maintaining a strategic relationship with an outside power that could provide the means to maintain that edge.
For more than a decade spanning the mid-1950s to 1967, Israel's main patron and ally was France (after a brief relationship with the Soviet Union in the early 1950s). Then came 1967, and Israel made a major shift.
In that war, Israel concluded that the benefits of seizing the territory outweighed the loss of French patronage, and Jerusalem defied France's demand not to launch the attack. Israel calculated — correctly, in retrospect — that its national interest in redefining the regional balance of power outstripped its interest in placating France and that it could replace French patronage with American support.
A prime reason Israel went to war in 1967 was to redefine its frontiers. Seizing the West Bank and Golan Heights allowed Israeli forces to be anchored on the Jordan River line and the Golan Heights (as well as to expel Egypt from the Sinai Desert). Throughout decades of low-intensity conflict and the 1973 war, all of these Israeli gains from 1967 have remained intact.
The drawback was that the move to the Jordan line placed a large, hostile Palestinian population under Israeli control and responsibility. For the past 34 years, Israeli energy has been sapped by the need to maintain security on the West Bank while avoiding a level of military action that would lead to a rupture in U.S. aid and political support.
But that also contained the seeds of failure for diplomatic efforts, such as the Oslo peace strategy. Given Israel's intractable security requirements, the West Bank can never be economically autonomous. Since Israel controls the transport and communications infrastructure to support its Jordan River strategy, Palestine cannot be allowed to become militarily independent. Therefore, the political autonomy and sovereignty for Palestine inherent in the Oslo process has been an illusion.
When it became clear to Palestinians at Camp David last summer that Oslo meant this condition would be institutionalized permanently, the result was the re-emergence of the deep hostility of Palestinians toward Israel and a resumption in the ongoing cycle of violence.
Since 1967, the United States has been the primary patron for Israel, and it has been for fear of alienating the United States that Israel has rejected the elimination of the Palestinian threat — until now.
This is even more the case because of the current global geopolitical situation. Neither Russia nor China is inclined to inject itself into the crisis through arms shipments to Syria or Egypt. Moreover, Cairo itself is constrained in its actions by the United States because of its dependence on weapons and foreign aid from Washington.
Russia might ultimately have such an interest, but not now. President Vladimir Putin is preoccupied with his diplomatic balancing act between China and the United States and is not prepared for a massive challenge of fundamental American interests in Egypt.
China is a potential replacement source, but there are logistical and operational limits that would make such an effort a long, costly and complicated affair. It is not clear that China has a geopolitical interest in a deep challenge to the United States either.
Israeli leaders know that a window of opportunity has opened for them to deal definitively with the strategic consequences of 1967.
Israel appears willing to pay the price of international condemnation and ostracism it will incur with the elimination of the Palestinian threat. From its viewpoint, this is a small price to pay to try to end the low-intensity warfare that has raged since the failure of the Camp David initiative.
George Friedman is the chairman and founder of STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. For more information about STRATFOR, click here.