WASHINGTON - As the Second Lebanon War raged, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger paid a visit to Major General Dan Harel, who was then army attache in Washington and is now deputy chief of staff. The war had not yet been described as a failure, nor had anyone thought about setting up the Winograd Committee. But Kissinger already had things to say, and he may not have been the only one.

Some Israelis believed that this was the way for someone in the Bush administration to express dissatisfaction with Israel's conducting of the war, by criticizing through an unofficial channel. Kissinger, who is still invited to the White House to advise the president, was a natural candidate for such a task.

The Israeli operation in Lebanon had left Kissinger unimpressed, and he made this clear to Harel. Even worse: Kissinger told him that Israel's erratic progress was undermining U.S. interests.

This was also the feeling of most senior U.S. officials after the war. Vice President Dick Cheney was particularly disappointed, since he was one of the leading proponents of American patience toward Israel, calling for time to allow it to complete its military campaign. All those, including President George Bush, who were counting on Israel to teach a definitive lesson to the extremists in the Middle East, were disappointed.

The mysterious Israeli attack in Syria last September and the assassination of Imad Mughniyah in Damascus last week may improve Israel's operational image, but will not completely restore the American confidence in its ability to complete a more ambitious campaign: occupying the Gaza Strip, crushing the military power of Hamas and restoring the Strip to the trained Palestinian forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas.

This is the only realistic scenario that may bode a better future for the Gaza Strip, and which also aligns with what is relevant to Washington: it is both realistic and meets U.S. aims, namely to avoid dialogue with Hamas and not to weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by rewarding the extremists.

Anyone trying to identify the path along which Israel will proceed toward an operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip must begin by studying the war in Lebanon and the mutual disappointment: The Americans were surprised by the poor operational capabilities of Israel, and the Israelis were shocked by the diplomatic ambush they ran into in the Security Council toward the end of the war. Hopefully the lesson has been learned and Israel and the U.S. will seek to coordinate the effort in Gaza in a better, more realistic fashion.

The Americans have a major complaint about Lebanon, but Israel has an even bigger complaint about Gaza: Had Bush not allowed Abbas to hold elections in the Palestinian Authority with the participation of Hamas, the situation in Gaza would have been different. Both sides will be careful not to repeat the errors of the past. If the operation in the Gaza Strip will begin according to plan and not in a sudden response to a bloody incident, it will not happen soon.

The Americans know that change must occur in the Gaza Strip. "The status quo there, I think, cannot hold," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a congressional hearing last week.

According to the American scenario, what is first required is complete Israeli readiness for a military operation, and also for political allowances. At the Pentagon they are impressed by the way the lessons of the war are being learned by the IDF, and have also began adopting some of them. These include the reinforcement of vehicles in areas where American forces are conducting guerrilla warfare.

However, the Americans will require assurances, more so than in the past, that this will not be an operation that will commence with a promise only to end with an investigation. Like Kissinger said, it undermines American interests.

The Bush administration is wary of yet another victory by the extremists; it has never had faith in the ability of the international community to prevent such victory. Only the most naive among the senior administration officials still toy with the idea of a multinational force that will take over in the Gaza Strip. The lessons from Lebanon have also been learned on this.

What they really want is the forceful takeover of the territory by a bolstered Palestinian Authority. Senior officers of the American army are going back and forth between Washington, Ramallah and Jerusalem, in an effort to draw a picture of the reality on the ground that is more accurate than the one presented by General Keith Dayton to Congress and the Bush administration, on the eve of the fall of the Strip to Hamas.

A broad Israeli operation, with American encouragement, will be able to begin only after the forces of Abbas are trained. But by then, the Americans may have a new president.