Four days after the launch of "Operation Cast Lead" in the Gaza Strip, the first signs of a rift among the Israeli leadership over the campaign's management began to emerge. Even though the IDF operation has thus far been considered a relative success (and the ministers who approved it have benefited from an improvement in their political standing as a result), a dispute has erupted among the country's senior political echelon over the question of when to begin the process of winding down the operation.
The disagreement is rooted in the antipathy that has taken hold among the major players on the Israeli side as well as the tense jockeying for votes. In addition, there remains much confusion in the decision-making process that is similar to that which was cited by the Winograd committee report which investigated the lapses during the Second Lebanon War.
There are many similarities to the Lebanese affair, only this time the differences of opinion are given greater public airing. Four days after the breakout of the Second Lebanon War, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (and deputy IDF chief Moshe Kaplinsky) sought to set in motion a diplomatic process that would put an end to the fighting. Prime Minister Olmert balked.
In the current situation, the argument centers on an exit strategy. The defense minister told Olmert and Livni on Tuesday night that Israel needs to consider a 48-hour cease-fire during which Hamas' willingness to cease its launching of rockets will be tested. Nonetheless, Barak is convinced that Israel should not take any unilateral measures. Rather, it should exploit one of the proposals, including that offered by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, for a two-day lull in the fighting so as to address any pressing humanitarian issues.
Barak's recommendation comes against the backdrop of a possible ground incursion into Gaza. Over the course of the last two days, the troops have been concentrated near the border while absorbing mortar fire, all in difficult weather conditions. Hamas is using the poor visibility afforded by the clouds and rainfall to continue its rocket fire at Israel. More Israeli deaths on the home front are likely to augment the pressure on the government to give a green light to a ground operation before it can exploit the opportunity to exhaust diplomatic options to end the fighting.
According to this logic, the operation's main goal - which is to create a new deterrent balance vis-a-vis Hamas - has for the most part already been attained by way of the massive air campaign that killed 380 Palestinians. The chances of reaching a quick cease-fire are not good because an agreed-upon framework has yet to emerge, but it would behoove the government to give it a chance, thus enhancing the legitimacy of any renewed offensive in the event the lull were to break down.
Barak is certainly mindful of the possibility that Israel is approaching the ground operation stage, yet he is also aware of the price: considerable losses and the specter of an army being bogged down for months in the Gaza Strip.
Barak's stance, which was initially presented as "the position staked by the heads of the defense establishment," was widely reported in the news media on Tuesday afternoon. Aides to the prime minister dismissed the possibility of a cease-fire, telling the press that "the operation is not winding down. [We] need to prepare for as long as it takes and we are proceeding as planned."
The press reports prompted a wave of denials, some of them surprising given the manner in which reporters received the information. The IDF Spokesperson was quick to issue a statement refuting the suggestion "adamantly and in a way that is unequivocal" that the IDF will propose pursuing a cease-fire. Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin's office also released a similar statement to that effect.
In other words, this is an idea that is currently being mulled solely by the defense minister. The IDF chief of staff, who continues to keep a low profile, is not offering any of his own information. On the basis of his stance which he expressed at the outset of the hostilities, it would be reasonable to assume that Ashkenazi will be cautious in applying more force. If there is an opportunity to wrap up the campaign - perhaps after a limited ground incursion - he will look to take advantage of it.
What is obvious is that none of the key decisionmakers would like to be portrayed at this stage as the individual advocating a quick conclusion to the war. One factor to consider is the balance of power vis-a-vis Hamas (establishing the threat of a ground assault), but it would be naive to think that the security of the state is the only consideration at play for the protagonists.
Tuesday's witch-hunt portends bleak developments for the future. The events of recent days lead us to some conclusions: it is difficult to wage war in winter; it is best not to embark on a war in the middle of an election campaign; and working towards a cease-fire is proving to be an extremely logical idea.
On the Palestinian side, the Hamas military wing announced Tuesday that it would set up its fire rockets at targets inside Israel. Yet, despite the threats that Hamas is accustomed to making, it appears the group is certainly willing to agree to a two-day lull in fighting. Ultimately, Hamas' interest is restoring quiet to Gaza under its terms. Its military standing is currently not impressive. Life has also become intolerable for Gazans.
The problem is likely to arise after 48 hours. Hamas will demand a halt to the bombardment of Gaza, the opening of border crossings along the Israel-Gaza frontier, and the opening of the Rafah crossing.
Yet it is doubtful that Israel would agree to completely lift the siege on Gaza while Hamas continues to boost its arsenal of weapons. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced Tuesday that this country will leave the Rafah crossing closed and will agree to open it only when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reassumes control of it. In such an instance, Hamas is likely to renew the rocket fire, this time with greater urgency.
In the meantime, the group has succeeded in demonstrating its military capabilities. The Israeli assault appears at times to be akin to blowing off steam, while Hamas continues to launch projectiles.
Hamas is not unleashing its entire arsenal and the operatives in its military wing are displaying operational discipline. Residents of Gaza have raised questions about the Israeli operation.
"What exactly has Israel managed to achieve?" one asked. "Many killed, many destroyed buildings, and Hamas continues to stand on its feet. Politically, it's stronger than ever."
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