Barak's Restraint in Gaza Is a Huge Elections Gamble

Defense Minister knows that Livni and other ministers will blame him if the rocket attacks intensify.

The debate in Israel over a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip is a debate between two opposing security doctrines: preemption versus postponement.

Proponents of an invasion argue that it is better to fight Hamas before it grows even stronger, as that will reduce casualties on both sides. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads the opposing camp, holds that it is better to wait: Perhaps something will change in the Palestinian arena or in the Arab world, thereby preventing a bloody war, and if not, waiting until Hamas escalates the conflict will make it easier to mobilize both domestic and international support for an operation.

Barak, who cites David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin as progenitors of his doctrine, argues that there are no knock-out victories in Israeli-Arab wars, only intervals of calm before the next round. And if, following a war with Hamas, Israel would merely return to the same "lull" it is in now, why rush into war?

So far, Barak has managed to get the cabinet to accept his view. But he knows that Tzipi Livni, Haim Ramon and other ministers who have called for harsher action against Hamas will blame him if the rocket attacks intensify.

And he has effectively bet his election campaign on this strategy: If a rocket hits a kindergarten between now and election day, or if hundreds of rockets at once land on the Negev, he will bear sole responsibility. He will be accused of failing to launch a major operation in time.

The fact that both the prime minister and the army's chief of staff agreed with his estimate will not help, because Ehud Olmert and Gabi Ashkenazi are not running in the election. One veteran political observer noted that the Labor Party twice lost elections, in 1988 and 1996, due to terror attacks during the campaign. If rocket terrorism strikes this time round, Labor is likely to hemorrhage voters to Livni's Kadima.

But even if just the current low-level rocket fire continues, Barak has a problem, because he will have trouble pointing to an achievement. The truce, which he pushed, has not stabilized a modus vivendi with Hamas like that with Hezbollah in the north. Nor has it resulted in the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. It did give the Negev a few months of relative peace, but now, that, too, is gone.

Instead of military action, Israel has opted to pressure Hamas via an economic blockade. But its freedom to do so is liable to decrease once Barack Obama assumes the U.S. presidency. Already, international patience with the blockade is wearing thin, and Israel has been under increasing pressure to allow more goods into Gaza.

Just last week, with George Bush still in office, America joined the other members of the Middle East Quartet (the European Union, United Nations and Russia) in demanding that Israel completely lift the blockade with regard to humanitarian goods (food, fuel, medicine, etc.). And if even the Bush administration, which has largely supported Israeli measures against Hamas, takes such an approach, Obama's administration can be expected to take an even harder line, arguing that it is wrong to punish 1.5 million Palestinians over a few rockets.

Indeed, the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair, told Haaretz in an interview in Friday's Week's End that he believes the blockade must end, and hinted that Obama and his foreign policy team share this view.

However, this approach is liable to strengthen those in Israel who favor a large-scale military operation.