The Palestinian children who were killed this week in the Gaza Strip when the Israel Defense Forces opened fire at people launching Qassam rockets, which the children were supposed to return for re-use, were born after the Oslo Accords. They are salient representatives of the loss of the entire Oslo generation, who were not educated for peace with Israel, but for a tactical respite ahead of the next conflict.

Even as the confrontation in Gaza and in the nearby Israeli communities was flaring up temporarily this week, the IDF senior command met to discuss how the army will turn an opportunity of this kind, and other threats, to its advantage. It is ridiculous that one of the conditions for removal from the list of wanted individuals is for members of organizations that have perpetrated terror attacks to sign a commitment to desist from violence against Israel. The most senior wanted man, who signed a commitment of this kind and violated it time and again without batting an eyelash, was Yasser Arafat. Ehud Barak, who during his term as prime minister was a prisoner of the Oslo process, was the last of Arafat's political victims.

Barak's late response to Arafat can be summed up by the dictum: "Only security will bring withdrawal." Not peace now, not a unilateral evacuation of territories as a down payment for peace. Those ideas have not passed the test of reality; at present they do not enjoy the support of a sufficiently large and solid majority in the Israeli public, and therefore they have no prospect of being realized.

Anyone who denies this cannot understand the context of this week's workshop, held by the IDF senior command. Its subject: the army's five-year plan. The Second Lebanon War ostensibly changed everything, but in practice changed only very little. The IDF's strategic vista is the same as the one of two years ago. The setting is similar, the audience is identical, only some of the actors have changed.

The manager of the workshop, who will also sum it up next week - the official title of this week's discussions was "Presentation of Alternatives and Brainstorming" - is Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, who has been the chief of staff for the past six months. But the concept underlying the plan was set in motion during the term of his predecessor, Dan Halutz, and the main credit for it goes to two members of Halutz's General Staff, the deputy chief of staff, Moshe Kaplinsky, and the head of the Planning Directorate, Ido Nehushtan.

Under pressure from the Brodet Committee, which recently examined the defense budget, the government is henceforth supposed to approve not only a series of expenses in shekels and dollars, but also the reasons behind those figures: scenarios of total and limited war, routine and security operations that simulate threats, and a projected military responses.

Possible scenarios

The government will cease to be a treasurer that signs checks and absolves itself of responsibility for procurement decisions, and will revert to its original avocation of risk management, because risks are inherent in every choice among alternatives. For example, striving for peace with Syria not only means returning the Golan Heights but also entails the Syrian army's gradual transition to advanced American equipment, similar to the weapons in the IDF's possession. It could even prove easier to deal with the risk posed by that equipment, with which Israel is familiar, than with Russian or Chinese weapons systems, not to mention the severance of the Syria-Iran alliance - but every decision will have a price. It will be the political rather than the military echelon that will sign off on it.

If Defense Minister Barak will be able to choose between the Syrian and the Palestinian channel, he will prefer a dialogue with Bashar Assad, who has the capability to implement an agreement the basic form of which has been known for the past decade. In contrast, the good will of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayad cannot be translated into closing the account with Israel, if domestic zealots and their supporters in Tehran are opposed to such a move.

According to what trickled out of the General Staff workshop, the IDF will be preparing for the following scenarios in the next five years: thwarting the danger of a hostile country that does not border on Israel achieving nuclear capability (this means Iran in particular, but also applies to Pakistan should a radical Islamic regime assume power there instead of the regime of Pervez Musharraf), a war with Syria, another round of hostilities against Hezbollah, a confrontation with the Palestinians and a deep freeze in relations with post-Mubarak Egypt. All these developments are liable to occur both separately and together, and, as a footnote, there are various other possible spectacles as well: the end of the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan, an upheaval in Saudi Arabia, an uprising by Israel's Arabs.

In light of this long and weighty series of problems that could become acute, maybe even all at once, Israel has to build up between three and five different armies. It does not have enough money or enough determined and proficient volunteers to realize this; the country will buckle, exhausted, under the burden of all that armor. The practical solution, which will allow Israel to go on living at a reasonable level of permanent defense and readiness to move to a short peak effort, is a multipurpose army which can be converted to handle each different task through minor adjustments. Such an army is necessarily clumsy and far from perfect, because its general expertise is broad rather than deep. Combat experience and the tracks for promotion do not allow for deploying certain forces and commanding officers, mainly infantry and special units, in the territories, whereas others, such as armored formations, are kept in dry storage for full-scale war.

Demilitarization update

Today, in his adult version, Ehud Barak represents the traditional line of security-oriented Mapai, the forerunner of Labor. This translates into the line of "suspect him" as a precondition for "respect him." In its updated version it emphasizes the ability to intercept missiles and rockets with a certainty approaching 100 percent before more territories are evacuated. This an update and not an innovation because Israel always insisted on the demilitarization of the territories it evacuated and stated that the evacuation would take years, which would be exploited to examine the demilitarization's credibility. The withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza exposed the inability to enforce demilitarization when it comes to steep-trajectory weapons, which are emplaced in the evacuated area or outside it.

In the absence of a constitution, Israel has Basic Laws. One of their paramount premises is thwarting an existential threat. Israel's strategic capability was originally intended to repulse, when all else fails, a simultaneous attack by Arab armies on the armistice lines of 1949-1967. Later on, the goal of deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction against Israel was added to this premise. Behind the talk of "diplomatic preemption" and "worldwide sanctions" should Iran not desist from its thrust for nuclear weapons lurks the military alternative.

The second law posits "You shall not quarrel with America." There can be no important military move without reaching an understanding - preferably ahead of time - with the White House. Hence Israel's need to take into consideration the president's other constraints - be they diplomatic, political or military. In return, Israel receives the best of America's weapons, to maintain a qualitative edge over the other American-supported armies in the region.

The Israel Air Force will purchase several squadrons of the multipurpose (attack and interception) F-35, not only because the F-16 will become obsolete in the decades ahead, but also because in the Middle East you must not lag behind the neighbors. When Congress amends the law and permits the sale of an even more advanced aircraft, the F-22, to allies such as Japan and Israel, Israel will acquire a substantive and demonstrative air superiority. The air force will need just one squadron, 25 planes, for special missions requiring the penetration of airspace saturated with radar (which is not supposed to detect the F-22, because of its structure and the materials it is made of, which nullify radiation) and surface-to-air missiles.

American aid also comes into play in the prepositioning of emergency ammunition. Recently the number of shells and bombs that will be at Israel's disposal in a war - of both the iron and precision-guided types - was increased on the order of $200 million, in order to spare the need for an airlift. As usual, the Americans - not only the Pentagon but also the military industries, headed by Lockheed Martin - will be only too happy to sell the Israel Navy a multipurpose craft (a littoral combat ship, or LCS).

The third law of the IDF in 2007 is "prepare for coalition wars." The 1956 Sinai Campaign was a coalition war, with France and Britain. The 1991 Gulf War, with Israel passively absorbing Iraqi Scuds and protected by Patriot missiles manned by American soldiers, was a more advanced example. In the next war, perhaps in the Persian Gulf, Israel might assume a more active role, in an alliance under American leadership. The gloomy if sober conclusion is that the next war now looks closer than the next peace.