How Israel Declares War / Our Pols' Future

This is what an Israeli-style declaration of war looks like. The "senior political leadership" triumvirate - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - huddle together with journalists and camera crews in the Defense Ministry's old conference room, with its out-of-style design, unkempt plants and faded carpet.

Olmert and Barak came dressed for combat, wearing no ties and no make-up. Livni, wearing a black suit, brought a pen and notebook with her.

The three political rivals, the spectrum of whose relationship ranges from deep loathing to utter contempt, now need to lead the country through a war. The results of that war, more than anything else, will determine Barak and Livni's political futures in the upcoming general election in which they are both running. It will also affect Olmert's chances of returning to public life after he steps down.

Olmert seemed exhausted with dark circles around his eyes. He began his premiership with a war up in the north and is ending it with a war in the south. In between those two wars, he bombed a Syrian nuclear facility. The peace processes he tried to jump-start with the Syrians and the Palestinians went no where. Olmert's term will be remembered for its security-related vicissitudes.

The declaration Olmert made yesterday seemed as though it had been written under the watchful eye of Eliyahu Winograd, who chaired the committee for the evaluation of the performance of decision-makers during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. It underscored the deliberations and consultations that preceded Operation Cast Lead.

Olmert prepared his listeners to a long and protracted period of fighting in the south in which Hamas will increase the range of the missiles and rockets it fires into Israeli population centers.

It looked nothing like the hasty departure into battle of 2006. More importantly, Israel's goals for the war were put forth in a very deliberate and reserved tongue. Instead of the pathos-filled rhetoric of the last war and the empty promises to "lift the ballistic threat" and "change the rules of the game," Olmert used a quiet tone of voice in which he spoke about a reasonably attainable objective: Restoring calm to Israel's southern districts.

Should Operation Cast Lead end successfully it will serve to launder Olmert's image as a failed leader, at least to some extent. But the key figure in this show is Ehud Barak. It's his war. He was brought into the Defense Ministry to replace Amir Peretz, who came to represent Israel's failure in Lebanon. He was brought in to prepare Israel for a future confrontation and restore Israeli deterrence.

For a long time, Barak insisted that Israel demonstrate restrain and measured responses to Hamas' actions. With every passing day, he warned that we are nearing a showdown in Gaza. Now that day is here, with Barak to run both the show and the showdown.

He is proud of the deception he pulled off by letting in the convoy of supply trucks into Gaza on Friday - a move for which he was criticized by the right wing. Indeed, the surprise strike caught Hamas unprepared, but Barak will be judged according to his ability to end the operation on terms which are favorable for Israel and the prevention of accidents which produce casualties.