On the Path to Bitter Disappointment

It was hard not to be confused yesterday by the reports and statements concerning the aims of the Israel Defense Forces operation in the Gaza Strip.

It was hard not to be confused yesterday by the reports and statements concerning the aims of the Israel Defense Forces operation in the Gaza Strip. Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained on Israel Radio that the operation is meant "at the end of the day" to stop the Qassam rocket attacks, but in and of itself it will not end the shooting. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was even more unequivocal: During the cabinet meeting he stated, "Israel has no intention to end the fighting against terror," and that "over the coming days we will hold security discussions... in order to weigh the ways in which our security forces will operate and how to continue with this." Haaretz's main headline yesterday declared that the purpose of the operation is to bring an end to the rocket attacks on Ashkelon, while Ma'ariv's read: "In the crosshairs - the Hamas heads." Yedioth Ahronoth in its commentary (which was echoed by the three television news channels Saturday evening) said that this is "a limited operation that will not stop the rockets."

And the common citizen is left wondering: Where is this government taking the country? Has it formulated its goals in the confrontation with Hamas? Is the escalating military operation necessitated by the goals that have been set? Is there no operational alternative to the chosen option? Would diplomacy and dialogue not be preferable? These ruminations are the result of what is perceived to be the leadership's flip-flopping: on the one hand it has given a green light to significantly escalating the situation, yet on the other, it does not appear to be certain in its decision.

Everyone agrees that the situation, in which communities in southern Israel fall within an increasingly expanding radius of deadly rocket attacks, is unacceptable and must be brought to an end. Coming to terms - albeit with clenched teeth - with the destruction of normal day to day life in Sderot, is undermined as the threat of terror from the sky moves deeper into Israel; not because the blood of the residents of Ashkelon and Netivot is more precious, but because of the strategic implications of the ability of the Palestinian militants to disrupt routine life in increasingly larger swathes of the country.

This broad consensus is reminiscent of the public mood on July 12, 2006, during the first hours after the Hezbollah attack near Zar'it on the border with Lebanon. The overall view then was that Hezbollah had crossed every possible red line, and then too the radio and newspaper pundits called on the government not to hold back - as did the next day's newspaper headlines: "Declaration of war," "IDF strikes Hezbollah," "Beirut will burn," "Prepare bomb shelters in northern Israel."

It seems that the government is also affected by the same spirit that guided its steps during the first days of the Second Lebanon War. While it appears to have adopted the insights of the Winograd Committee and has at its disposal more successful leaders than Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz, the impression created during the past 48 hours is that even now its declarations are hollow and that is has lost its way in its search for a solution to the current situation.

We need a fundamental change, and the way to do this is by either one of two tracks - the military or the political. If the violent option is selected, preparations need to be made regarding its scale, the determination for carrying it through and the means that are necessary to achieve the goal. In other words, to act militarily from the air and the ground with the necessary force that would destroy Hamas' ability to launch rockets against Israel.

If this goal cannot be achieved - either because of the cost in lives such an operation will claim or for other reasons - the diplomatic option needs to be adopted and a dialogue needs to commence with the Hamas leadership. If this angle is not realistic - because of considerations involving Israel's relations with the Palestinian Authority, the United States, or other reasons - the broad military operation needs to be chosen.

A limited military operation, like the one that has been taking place over the past two days, is is not effective: it does not even seek to bring an end to the rocket attacks, it does not aspire to alter the situation fundamentally, and it does not even pose clear goals. The way things are currently being conducted, the government is in danger of once more bitterly disappointing its citizens in an area they are particularly sensitive about: their security.