ANALYSIS / Israel's Operation in Gaza Is Entering Its Problematic Phase

The longer the operation continues, the more trouble Israel's leadership will have staying unified.

Operation Cast Lead is entering the problematic phase of any war: The first, surprise strike is over, the operational successes are less impressive, and the enemy is beginning to rally. Israel would want to continue hurting Hamas, but the goals readied before the operation are running out and the magical aerial solutions that do not involve loss of soldiers are coming to an end.

This is the stage when the government must decide whether to send ground troops into the Gaza Strip and begin face-to-face combat with Hamas or make do with threats, seek a cease-fire that will bear the imprint of the bombardments of the first days and announce that the goal had been attained and threaten that if rocket-fire from Gaza continues the next strike will be more painful.

Monday the first signs of controversy surfaced in Israel regarding the continuation of the operation and its character. The defense establishment at first spoke enthusiastically about a three- and even four-week operation, and about preparations for a ground assault. The cabinet decision allows for such an escalation, up to retaking the Gaza Strip, but the Foreign Ministry says the international community will stop Israel long before that.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic arena is quiet. Israel discounts today's meeting of European Union foreign ministers and the urgent calls from the United Nations secretary general and the foreign ministers of Britain and France for an immediate cease-fire. No senior envoy is on the way to Israel to stop the fighting. The Bush White House is very pleased with the blow struck against Hamas.

However, Jerusalem was not pleased with the statement by the U.N. Security Council that called on both sides to cease hostilities and protested to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the wording described Israel and Hamas as equals. But Rice made clear that this is the way it would go.

Jerusalem believes that the international community will do no more than release empty statements to the media, but would intervene to stop the fighting if there were a major incident (such as the Kfar Qana bombing that stopped Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon in 1996) resulting in numerous civilian casualties in Gaza or if domestic pressure in Egypt and Jordan reached intolerable levels.

Israel cannot expect the world to "save it from itself," and it should look for ways to end the conflict quickly. The danger lurking here is a feeling of success that would drag on the action and increase the chances of unpleasant entanglements.

It was said in the Knesset Monday that the political winner of the fighting in Gaza was clearly Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Meanwhile, he is growing stronger at the expense of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but senior Likud figures said that if this trend continued Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu would have to end his cease-fire with Barak and begin seeing him as a threat.

A better showing in the polls is exactly Barak's problem: He will have to have very strong nerves to know when the right time is to stop the operation and not to try to achieve one more small gain. After having been taunted for a long time that he has no courage, Barak proved he was not afraid to pit the IDF against Hamas. Now he has to be careful of those who will say he lacks character because he called for a cease-fire.

Barak Monday rejected a proposal from French Foreign Minsiter Bernard Kouchner for a 48-hour lull to send humanitarian aid into Gaza. Some officials in Israel thought this was a chance to call a halt to the operation, with rain in any case limiting the IDF's ability to maneuver. Barak told Kouchner not to worry, humanitarian aid was arriving into Gaza all the time.

It can be assumed that the longer the fighting continues, the more trouble Israel's quarrelling leadership will have staying unified. In the end, as in every war, the defense establishment will argue that it was stopped a moment before it destroyed the enemy while the diplomats will say the fighting went on too long, until Israel lost international support.