To judge by the sights and sounds on the Negev's roads, at military staff headquarters and at training facilities, Operation Cast Lead is about to take off to new heights.

This is not fraud, and not even self-delusion. They really are preparing, and who if not the Israel Defense Forces of recent years knows that it is better to be prepared to fight without fighting than to fight without being prepared? But the implementation of the operation's next phase will mean admitting failure because the operation, including surrounding Gaza to pressure Hamas, is meant to support diplomatic moves. The international arena and the politics of decision making all focus now on stopping the operation.

On Monday, a white flag was raised for the first time - not Hamas', but Ehud Olmert's, as he joined Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak in understanding that stopping now is better than an entanglement that will overshadow the operation's achievements.

Defense Minister Barak, IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin know that the desire to thwart terror justified doubling the operation. But they also know that broader considerations are working against this desire. They are all devoted to the principle of "sticking to the mission in light of its goal," and when the mission - striking hard at Hamas - clashes with the goal, the goal wins out.

The main goal, which dictated the operation's logic in its aerial phase and ground phase so far, was deterrence - to convince Hamas to refrain from shooting its rockets for a very long time. The image of solid American support builds deterrence no less than the taking of a fortified objective in some God-forsaken neighborhood.

The Israeli threat to embark on a year-long operation is not serious, GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant warned (and did not recommend) Olmert and Barak at the Gaza Division headquarters. A week before Barack Obama moves into the White House, and a month before Barak and Livni hope to reach the elections without a slap in the face from the Americans, who would risk a bitter honeymoon with Obama?

We are quick to forget, but our great friend George W. Bush protested vehemently after Operation Defensive Shield entered Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, and demanded that we stop. If that was Bush, what will Obama do when the IDF conceded that of 901 Palestinians killed (as of Monday morning) only 400 were identified as Hamas operatives? Some 250 men, women and children were caught in the cross-fire, and the others are in some in-between group.

And what will happen when the forces roll southward in a firestorm, followed by bulldozers that will mow down hundreds of houses on the Philadelphi route to put an end to the tunnels? Israel will be quickly tossed out of both south and north, losing diplomatic assets in the process.

Israel, a proud country with solid yet flexible principles, is prepared to conduct indirect talks with Hamas, as long as they are not defined as indirect talks a la Turkey-Syria. The bride will meet with the Egyptian matchmaker, Omar Suleiman, not only without the groom, but on a different day. But it is likely that a match, albeit loveless, will result, since neither side can be choosy.

The chances of persuading Hamas to stop the rocket fire is high: The rate of firing has fallen continually, from 80 to 60 to 40 to 20. And the chances of it signing a pledge to stop smuggling is low. Israel will have to take what it can get, not as little compared with before December 27, but less than it had hoped.