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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The illusion of wartime unity at the top of the political pyramid vanished Wednesday, when sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert slammed Defense Minister Ehud Barak for seeking to promote a weeklong "humanitarian cease-fire" in the Gaza Strip.
Following press reports Wednesday that Barak wanted to see a humanitarian cease-fire, sources close to Olmert were quoted as saying that Hamas saw and heard what was going on in Israel and "draws encouragement" from this, concluding that Israel was searching for a way out of the military operation.
"The irresponsibility of ministers - regardless of how senior they are - in leading private initiatives is unfortunate," one of these officials said.
The official said that the publication of these plans "gives encouragement to Hamas, gives a shot in the arm to their backers, and has an immediate effect of the fate of a million Israelis in the South and thousands of IDF soldiers carrying out operations inside Gaza."
The officials said all ideas that had a direct impact on military activities should be discussed privately, and not through the media, and that it was necessary to maintain maximum ambiguity about Israel's plans to achieve the operations' aims.
Barak did not hold his fire, and issued a statement of his own, saying that he would "not be dragged into unfitting or baseless" wartime declarations when a great deal of responsibility was needed.
Barak said the public would know "very well how to judge the degree of responsibility and seriousness of the country's leaders."
A few hours later, Channel 10 reported that Olmert was not only feuding with Barak, but also with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. According to the report - denied immediately by the Prime Minister's Office - Olmert turned down a request by Livni to go to Washington to get US guarantees to stop the arms smuggling into Gaza.
Livni, Olmert and Barak met Wednesday evening, as they have most nights since Operation Cast Lead began, to discuss the future of the operation. While both Barak and Livni have indicated they would like to end the operation now, Olmert's position has been less clear, leading to reports of disagreement between him and his two top ministers about how to wind down the Gaza offensive.
Pensioners Minister Rafi Eitan, a member of the security cabinet, jumped into the fray Wednesday, threatening to quit over the politicization of the war and its failure to meet its objectives.
Eitan, in a letter to Olmert, recalled that he called for the postponement of the February 10 election at the start of the operation and he said that his fears that politics would influence the war had proven justified.
"Some of those who had led an impressive military and diplomatic campaign until the last few days have returned to function as politicians," Eitan wrote, in a clear reference to Barak. "I am warning you that the closer we get to the opening of the ballot boxes, the more intertwined politics will be in decisions about the operation."
Eitan, who worked in Israeli intelligence for decades, warned that time was running out to complete the operation and that if Israel did not achieve its goals soon, the next Israeli prime minister would have to return to Gaza in a few months with a new president in Washington.
One senior official with vast diplomatic experience said he could not remember a time when the waging of a war in Israel had become so politicized.
He said that while Olmert wanted to continue with the war to get a decisive victory that would wipe out the memory of the Second Lebanon War, Barak had a political interest in stopping the fighting because he wanted to go to the polls not only as defense minister, but also as head of the country's "peace camp."
Olmert, according to this source, felt that Barak was going behind his back in floating the idea of weeklong cease fire, just as he thought the defense minister circumvented him during the first week of the war by discussing with the French a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.