idf tank awesome 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
The Second Lebanon War, inevitably, has cast its shadow over Operation Cast Lead from the start.
The parallels were unavoidable: Two conflicts that Israel chose to enter after its people came under unprovoked attack. Two conflicts against the proxy armies of Iran. Two conflicts in territories from which Israel had unilaterally withdrawn. Two conflicts entered by Israel knowing there would be no sympathy from its international critics and only short-term empathy even from most of its friends. Two conflicts overseen by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
But the differences were striking, too: Unlike 2006, this was not a rushed resort to force, agreed upon in hours and foist on an unprepared IDF. Operation Cast Lead had been prepared for months, by an experienced defense minister (unlike the last time) and a no-nonsense chief of the General Staff (unlike the last time).
Hamas, for all its estimated 15,000 armed men, was far less well-equipped than Hizbullah, and had far less physical room to maneuver: It has its back to the sea or an unaccommodating Egypt, limiting its capacity to melt away, as Hizbullah's gunmen had done ever further to the north in Lebanon.
The legitimacy was overwhelming, and Israel had taken some steps to put in place the public diplomacy to explain it: Israel was responding to eight years of rocket attacks by a terror group whose leadership had seized power in a violent coup, repeatedly broadcast its determination to destroy Israel, and abused a misnamed cease-fire to smuggle in more arms and extend the range of its missiles.
And yet, as Day Five of Operation Cast Lead drew to a close, dismaying comparisons with 2006 were multiplying.
As happened then, there was a developing lack of clarity about the goal of the operation. Initially clearly defined as being aimed at restoring security to the South, it was being exaggerated by some Israeli officials as extending to the destruction of Hamas, and minimized by others as merely seeking a better version of the failed cease-fire.
Even though it was later rejected, an impression of hesitancy was created by the mere fact that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was prepared on Tuesday to entertain the idea of a 48-hour time-out, which might have been extended to a renewed cease-fire if Hamas halted its rocket attacks. This path would plainly have left unrealized the strategic goal of a changed reality in the South.
The willingness to even begin to consider a time-out implicitly amounted to Israel starting a stopwatch toward a cease-fire - an approach that, at this stage, flies in the face of the relentless determination promised by the Israeli leadership at the outset.
As with 2006, the hesitancy has extended to the use of ground forces - or rather the non-use of ground forces - though the unfavorable weather is plainly a factor here, too.
Hamas is lying in wait for a predicted major ground onslaught, gleefully anticipating that its nimble forces will outmaneuver Israel's tanks, cause heavy casualties, provoke growing opposition in Israel and send the IDF home humiliated.
But that is where Israel's traditional military daring and innovation are meant to kick in, via the use of surgical, penetrating, disorienting ground missions, to tackle the sensitive Hamas targets that cannot easily be eliminated from the air.
That is where Barak, the personification of the unexpected during his years as head of Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), and his partner Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi are supposed to demonstrate how things have changed from the Amir Peretz-Dan Halutz era.
That is where, when the time for a cease-fire does come, Israel is meant to have achieved tangible results and thus be able to dictate the terms that will deter Hamas not merely from restarting rocket fire, but from rebuilding the capacity to fire.
Terms, furthermore, that will enable Israel to maintain continued freedom of action to prevent the revival of this strategic threat.
It is not too late for this; Olmert insisted on Wednesday that "We didn't initiate the Gaza operation in order to end it while Israeli towns are still under fire."
But the international pressure is growing. The mediators are booking their flights. Hamas is hoping it will soon be able to celebrate and gloat and regroup.
And there's no escaping a worrying echo of 2006 in the dissipating Israeli momentum.