Operation Pillar of Defense is Defense Minister Ehud Barak's war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left the public stage, the microphone and the tours in the field to him. Together, of course, with the political gamble.
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If the operation ends with the appearance of an Israeli victory, Netanyahu will figure out how to take credit for it. But if it turns into a local or an international public relations disaster, then Barak will be thrown under the bus. That is the classic role of defense ministers.
Barak is well aware of this. He returned from the political wilderness to the ministry only on account of his position as "the man who wasn't there" in the Second Lebanon War. Barak correctly predicted the prolongation of the fighting at a time when the country's leaders still believed they would finish the whole thing with a quick strike on Hezbollah.
The failure brought Barak back to the top of the defense establishment. Ever since, he has come off as a moderating influence. He sought to postpone Israel's 2007 strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor (according to "foreign reports" ). And during Operation Cast Lead, four years ago, he tried to obtain a cease-fire early on. In both cases Barak went up against then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who wanted to attack the reactor and to prolong the fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Waiting outside his door now are Olmert and Barak's second rival, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. If Pillar of Defense is a failure, they will come off as saviors who pose an alternative to the current leadership. A successful operation will put Olmert and Ashkenazi's political ambitions on hold until the next slipup or the next term.
The military operation puts Barak's theory of war to the test. Barak is the special-operations guy with a preference for fast, pinpoint missions - preferably with an element of deceit and trickery - over multi-division ground battles that tend to get messy and complicated.
When you look at his record, it's easy to see why. Barak earned his military reputation in Sayeret Matkal, the general staff's elite special-ops force. His performance as a ground commander, as a tank commander in the Yom Kippur War and deputy commander of IDF forces in the Bekaa Valley, in the first Lebanon war, were less impressive.
Barak believes in the "leverage and pressure" method - first employed by Israel during Operation Accountability, in Lebanon in the summer of 1993. In this method, which Barak likes to demonstrate through the use of hand gestures and timetables, the goal of the warfare is to obtain a reasonable cease-fire arrangement between Israel and its adversary, whether Hezbollah or Hamas. The tactic is to apply pressure on the enemy's "state patron." Israeli firepower, or the threat of such, demonstrated through a wide call-up of reserve troops, is intended to signal to the patron state that its proteges are at risk of receiving a massive blow and it must intervene to calm the situation.
Egypt is the state patron of Hamas in the current round, and Israel's actions are aimed at prodding the new rulers in Cairo to stop the fighting and to act as guarantor of a future cease-fire. That is the role played by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's sponsors, in the rounds of fighting in Lebanon. "It is obvious that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood regime provides a tailwind for Hamas in Gaza," together with economic aid from Qatar, Barak said last Sunday during a lecture. He also warned that Israel would not quail at any military measure in order to restore calm and security to Israelis living near the Gaza border.
Speaking at the annual memorial for Moshe Dayan at Tel Aviv University, and in private conversations reported by my colleague Yossi Verter, Barak presented as the casus for the current belli the fact that Hamas "broke the rules" by firing an antitank missile at a military jeep on the Israeli side of the border last weekend, and blowing up a "tunnel with half a ton of antitank explosives that was partly in our territory."
He implied that Israel could not agree to the new game rules, which in effect created a Palestinian security zone on the Israeli side of the fence that could mean death for anyone entering it. That is what the IDF did on the Palestinian side of the fence, enforcing a "special security zone" there. But what's good for the goose is prohibited to the gander.
In his lecture Barak quoted Dayan's eulogy for Roi Rutenberg, the security coordinator of Kibbutz Nahal Oz who was murdered on the Gaza border 56 years ago: "That is the destiny of our generation, the choice of our lives - to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be struck from our fist and our lives cut down." Dayan's words were a seminal text of Israeli nationalism, perhaps the most important of all; a kind of Israeli Gettysburg Address.
As Barak sees it, things have not changed fundamentally since Dayan's day. "We live in a tough neighborhood, one in which there is no mercy for the weak and no second chance for those who cannot defend themselves - 'a villa in the jungle,' as I once put it," he said. He believes Israel has to flex its military muscles every few years in order to boost its deterrence so as to gain a time-out in its violent interactions with its neighbors.
His test now will be of his ability to persuade Egypt that it should work toward a cease-fire and agreed guidelines for behavior along the Israeli-Gazan border. Otherwise the old pattern will repeat itself: The Israel Air Force runs out of targets, the rocket fire into Israel continues, the IDF is drawn into a ground operation and public opinion turns its back on the operation and the people who launched it.