ANALYSIS / Israel Declares Victory in Gaza, but at What Cost?

Hamas has won interrnational legitimacy and sympathy, and its forces still control the Gaza Strip.

Trying to hide a smile and a sense of self-satisfaction Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced the cameras at the Defense Ministry and declared to the Israeli public, "We won." The Israel Defense Forces objectives for its operation in the Gaza Strip were "obtained in full." Hamas was "surprised and badly beaten," the government "made decisions responsibly and wisely," the IDF's performance was excellent and the southern home front "displayed resilience."

Olmert would have loved to have been able to say the same thing back in 2006, at the end of the Second Lebanon War. But then he had to confront a disappointed and outraged public calling for an inquiry into the government's handling of the war. The Gaza operation was undoubtedly intended to redeem Olmert, and will be used as a springboard for a comeback - if he avoids conviction on any of the charges pending against him.

Israel's military achievement in the fighting was aided by prior preparation and the creation of national and international legitimacy for the operation. The success was further assisted by the weakness of Hamas, in comparison to Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War, and the IDF's willingness to sustain losses that in the end were less than expected.

Israel succeeded in hurting Hamas and in creating an international awareness of the need to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the Gaza Strip, but not all the operation's objectives were accomplished. Rocket fire from the Strip into Israel continued throughout, and it will take a few weeks to determine whether they will stop. A humanitarian crisis in Gaza was not averted and it is not clear whether the likelihood of securing the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit has increased.

Olmert finally accepted the suggestions of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, after a week of delays. Livni was the first to suggest a unilateral cease-fire. She also initiated the "agreement to prevent arms smuggling" that she signed with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, providing Israel with an excuse to scale back its operations in Gaza.

Barak was the progenitor of the two-phase truce: First a cease-fire is declared. If Hamas stops firing rockets then Israel pulls its forces out of the Gaza Strip. If rocket fire resumes then the IDF goes back in, this time with the international backing gained by having tried a truce.

Saturday's decision includes both Livni's unilateralism and Barak's two-phase strategy. Olmert and Barak attempted to present a common front yesterday, after their public disagreement last week. The prime minister said the defense minister was his "friend." In his speech Barak emphasized his military experience, stressing his relative advantage over Olmert and Livni.

But Hamas' gains cannot be ignored: It has won international legitimacy and sympathy, and its forces still control the Gaza Strip.