Olmert the Gambler

No statesman in his right mind would have said what Olmert said in public this week about President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Ehud Olmert's old self ultimately took over. No statesman in his right mind would have said what Olmert said in public this week about President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Not to mention a statesman serving as prime minister of a country supported by the United States.

After two weeks in which he conducted the campaign against Hamas in a responsible, restrained manner, an arrogant, smug braggart burst out of him. After two weeks in which he seemed to have internalized the lessons of the Second Lebanon War, the licentious leader of that failed war took over. But the problem isn't only in the prime minister's boastful statements, but in his arrogant approach. An approach saying that this is a wonderful war. An approach whispering that this wonderful war can go on longer and longer, an approach leading Olmert to seriously consider expanding the war, taking over the Philadelphi route and conquering Rafah.

In 1970, Israel was immersed in an exhausting war of attrition. At the beginning of that year it achieved a decisive advantage over the Egyptian enemy thanks to the Phantom planes it received from the United States. But Israel was not satisfied with this and went on to bomb strategic targets deep inside Egypt. That was one step too far. It prompted the Soviet Union to equip Egypt with anti-aircraft missiles, which neutralized the Israeli advantage and turned a victory on points into an embarrassing tie. Three years later this tie begat the Yom Kippur War.

It's a simple Ben-Gurion-style rule: Don't pull the rope too tight. Use force only when it's necessary. Israel is not a superpower so it cannot wage ambitious imperialistic wars and subdue its rivals absolutely. It must make do with precise, measured goals. Deter the enemy, ensure calm in a general way and postpone the next war as long as possible.

In the first two weeks of Operation Cast Lead the Ben-Gurion style logic worked. The Israel Defense Forces struck Hamas, deterred it and created a military basis for a political arrangement to stop the fire and reduce weapons smuggling. Israel made it clear to its neighbors, at a great price in human life, that it was determined to defend itself and is still strong. But for the last few days the Gaza operation has been deviating from its initial goals and strategic significance. If the operation is not stopped immediately, it could lead to that additional step that would take it too far.

The temptations are powerful. The field commanders are determined and the belligerent politicians are pressing. The public wants an absolute victory and the captain is eager for a legacy that will cleanse his record. Since militarily, the operation is moving from one success to another, the desire to reach a decisive success, one that would change reality forever, is strengthening.

These temptations are dangerous. As in 1970, they could enbroil Israel in a boomerang move, whose perils are immeasurably bigger than its prospects. Any thought of increasing the fire power could ignite a terrible conflagration.

Olmert is a courageous man. His courage enabled him to make critical decisions that benefited Israel over the past two years. But sometimes Olmert is too courageous. Sometimes he acts like a gambler. This week he became increasingly like that bettor who won the jackpot more than once, but did not know well enough to get away from the table in time. The prime minister's friends and associates must tell him now that it's time to leave the table. It's time to end the war.

Next week begins the Barack Obama era. Israel cannot afford to enter the Obama era with its forces submerged in Gaza's human and moral mud. The attack on Hamas is an important challenge for Israel, but it is not the most important. Israel had better end Operation Cast Lead with a limited achievement and prepare with Obama for things to come. If Olmert wants to be remembered for mending his ways and clearing his name, he must put an end to the war.