The series of events that led at the end of the week to the scrapping of the Israel Defense Forces operation in Gaza, in its planned scope, includes clear farcical elements, and this is the positive side of the matter - better farce than tragedy. The Sharon government tried to direct a play and was shocked to discover that a pistol that was to be hung on the wall during the first act would lead the embittered actors to disrupt the play before the third.

The affair strengthens old doubts regarding the sound judgment of the four central figures in the decision-making process: Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz. They did not succeed in explaining the objective of the operation and how it fits into a wider context. They became entangled in a series of internal contradictions. If the operation is justified and essential, because Gaza is inundated and overflowing with terror, why wait for an excuse? And if they're waiting for a terror attack like the one at the gambling club in Rishon Letzion, why, from an intelligence perspective, are they able to establish a link between this attack and Gaza? If such a link is the central contention, how can we expect to maintain an element of surprise when those responsible for the attack hurry into hiding the moment after the explosion, or at the latest, when the prime minister and defense minister promise a response and convene for consultations?

The secret is not how the IDF will attain its objective, through the door or window, on foot or in an armored personnel carrier, but whether the government will instruct it to do so. And this secret was clearly exposed in the declared chain made up of a terror attack, a response to it and the tardy completion of the operation in the West Bank.

In the circuitous logic of anti-terror warfare, there is sometimes good reason to provide advance indications of an impending action because this may help to identify the movements and activities of the other side in response. Thus, certain operational measures are not aimed at conquering an objective, but rather at forcing those present to relocate. The implementation of ideas like these are conditional on the immediate availability of forces that will be put into action - air, marine or special forces. As the appetite grows, from companies and brigades to divisions and corps, more time is required to prepare and put them into motion. Time is the enemy of surprise, and when the forces include reserves, frantically mobilized under an emergency call-up, it is also the enemy of broad consensus, without which the government and General Staff have no real authorization for initiating the operation.

A reserve brigade is not just another plane or tank that the work managers at the General Staff can pull out from among its resources for readiness and deployment. A reserve brigade must be persuaded to come, train and fight. This type of persuasion was easy in March, in Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank (and would also have been easy in Gaza if the IDF had taken action there at the time). It is difficult in May in Gaza.

The administrative decisions - based on straightforward, but narrow considerations - to leave the skilled regular army forces in a sensitive sector in the West Bank, encircling a city that threatens to export suicide attacks, and send reserve forces in their place to Gaza, infuriated the reserves. Even if the senior command planned to use the regular army units for the most dangerous missions, the memory of the reservists killed in Jenin is too fresh and the explanation for the operation in the south is too weak. Those on their way to their deaths in Gaza cannot be expected to salute in mute obedience to those sending them on this mission, especially when the official attitude toward Gaza is ambiguous. If it is an evil center of terrorism, why did Israel agree to send the 26 wanted men who had holed up in the Church of the Nativity there?

The most problematic issue of all is how Mofaz has functioned. In the UN-Jenin inquiry affair, the government - the army's supreme commander - acted under a blunt threat of resignation by the chief of staff if he would be ordered to call soldiers to testify. The affair ended before the threat was put to the test, but Mofaz has not yet bothered to dispel this impression. In this way, he grants legitimacy for everyone - from frontline commanders to reserve combat soldiers - to shirk off discipline and excuse themselves from carrying out tasks if a legal directive is not to their liking.