Barak, Livni, Olmert at Loggerheads Over Exit Strategy of Gaza Operation

Israel's three top cabinet ministers cannot agree on the best way to end the military operation in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak want to reach a deal, with the help of the United States and Egypt, that will guarantee long-term quiet in the south and keep Hamas from getting stronger. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni prefers to end the operation now, without an agreement.

Meanwhile, Barak ordered the Israel Defense Forces yesterday to get ready for a significant expansion of its activities in Gaza, which would focus on bringing reserve forces into the enclave. The preparations for the next phase of Operation Cast Lead are underway as the government considers Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's cease-fire proposal.

The decision about whether to expand the Gaza operation will be made over the next few days, political sources in Jerusalem said. In the meantime, the political-security cabinet decided yesterday that military activity will remain at its current level and humanitarian aid to Gaza residents will be expanded.

Reserve units called up Sunday are due to complete their preparatory training today.

Amos Gilad, who heads the Defense Ministry's political-security bureau, is due to go to Cairo today to discuss producing new security arrangements that would end weapons smuggling from Sinai to Gaza.

At this stage, Israel is refusing to discuss the diplomatic elements of the Mubarak proposal, like opening border crossings and advancing the dialogue between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. This is why the government has chosen to send Gilad, a security official rather than a diplomat, as its representative.

In any case, the three top cabinet ministers cannot agree on the best way to end the military operation.

Livni proposes that the government make it clear that any attempt to harm Israel will be met with a harsh response, and wants to avoid a reprise of the tahadiyeh ("lull"), which would limit Israel's freedom of movement in the future. All three agree that Israel shouldn't engage in direct contact with Hamas or reach a deal with it.

Olmert said yesterday that if the political process doesn't meet Israel's expectations, it will not be deterred from expanding the military operation. From his perspective, the operation should force a cease-fire on Hamas under conditions that will make it difficult for the movement to act against Israel for an extended period.

Ministers who met with Olmert over the past few days said that although he didn't say so explicitly, they got the impression he was ready to continue the operation until the Hamas government collapsed.

The message that came out of yesterday's cabinet meeting was that Israel would not expand its activities in Gaza without giving the political process a chance. Israel is trying to use the threat of expanding the Gaza operation as a way of pressuring Hamas, Egypt and the international community to meet its demands for a cease-fire.

One of the factors affecting the decision about whether to expand the IDF operation is Israel's assessment of the damage it has caused Hamas. The IDF submitted various assessments to the cabinet yesterday, with some top military officials talking about a "serious blow" and others saying that only between 10 percent and 15 percent of Hamas' military capability has been damaged.

It appears that many leading generals prefer the diplomatic channel and are hoping there will be no need to expand the operation and bring the reserve forces into the Strip.