A simple question: Can Israel defeat its enemies? One need not go back decades, to the clinical successes of the Six Day War and Entebbe, to answer emphatically in the affirmative.
Operation Defensive Shield, carried out in the spring of 2002, was a carefully planned and effectively executed attack on the Palestinians' suicide-bomb infrastructure in the West Bank that remade our reality in the years ever since - precisely the kind of goal enunciated for this week's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza.
Defensive Shield was launched after the heaviest losses to terrorism in a single month in Israeli history - some 130 fatalities in more than a dozen attacks, including the Seder night bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya. Its stated aim, as set out by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, was to capture the terrorists and their dispatchers, and destroy their weapons, their explosives and their arms factories - their capacity to kill us.
The operation was bitter and bloody. It was internationally controversial: Duplicitous Palestinian claims that Israel was massacring civilians were given widespread credence. There was heavy loss of life and massive destruction on the Palestinian side. Twenty-nine Israeli soldiers were killed - most of them in the suicide-bomber "capital," Jenin refugee camp, where the terror gangs had booby-trapped buildings for the incoming IDF troops.
But it was decisive, marking the beginning of the drastic decline in suicide-bombings that enabled ordinary life to flourish here anew. The physical destruction of the bombers' infrastructure; the knowledge that the IDF might return at any time; the deaths of key terror chiefs; the effective intelligence gathering that greatly reduced potential bombers' motivation; the construction of the West Bank security barrier - all of these factors combined if not to terminate, then to profoundly set back what had been an unprecedented strategic suicide-bomb onslaught against the men, women and children of Israel.
The deterrent effect of what had been a reluctant resort to such force, however, was gravely undermined by the subsequent abject handling of the Second Lebanon War - fought, like the current operation, across a border to which Israel had unilaterally withdrawn in the false hope of being rewarded with quiet.
The Winograd Committee's scathing dissection of that conflict portrayed an IDF unprepared to battle Hizbullah, and a political leadership - headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Amir Peretz - too arrogant and inexperienced to realize this.
The consequence was a bumbling and hesitant confrontation, in which Hizbullah's tenacity was underestimated, as was the capacity for its thousands of Katyusha rockets to wreak havoc throughout the north of Israel. The initial air assault failed to achieve the decimation of Hizbullah that the Israeli leadership had unfoundedly predicted. And the ground forces were short of training and supplies, and poorly marshalled. (IDF soldiers fought highly effectively against Hizbullah's forces; the problem was not with their courage and skill, but with the incoherence of the command hierarchy.)
The stop-start battle with Hizbullah was code-named, with unintended accuracy, Operation Change of Direction. It became the Second Lebanon War only after it went unwon.
In the two and a half years since then, however, the IDF has benefited from the command of a no-nonsense ex-infantry man, Gabi Ashkenazi, who has quietly retrained and re-entrenched basic logistics and skills.
The unqualified Peretz has long since gone from the Defense Ministry, to be replaced by the rather politically unloved, but undeniably experienced Ehud Barak - a former chief of the General Staff and former head of the IDF's elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit.
Olmert remains in power - albeit only for a few more weeks - having insisted that he was uniquely placed to learn the lessons of 2006's failures, and thus to prevent a recurrence.
And yet, this week, six days into Operation Cast Lead, the question must be asked anew: Can Israel defeat its enemies?
ISRAEL EMBARKED on its confrontation with Hamas with a clear goal: To restore security to the South.
Some senior Israelis exaggerated the scope. The ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, for instance, said the aim of this conflict was to destroy Hamas. She was privately rapped for speaking out of line. Barak said in the Knesset on Monday that Israel was engaged in "a war to the bitter end" against Hamas, but those who used this assertion to claim that Operation Cast Lead was itself this "war to the bitter end" were removing the comment from the context in which he employed it in his speech. It was uttered as Barak sought to illustrate the fundamental clash between our sovereign state and an Islamist movement that avowedly seeks our elimination, not as part of the operation's goals.
Publicly and privately, however, Israeli officials from Olmert on down did elaborate on what would constitute "restored security." By this, they said, Israel meant the creation of a new reality in which Hamas would not fire rockets into Israel; would not seek to fire rockets into Israel; would not manufacture rockets; would not produce or smuggle in the materials for manufacturing rockets; and would not engage or prepare for other acts of terrorism. If Hamas's ability to rule Gaza was destroyed in the process, so be it.
This, they said, would enable southern Israel to breathe easily again, enjoying long-term confidence that murderous metal shrapnel was not about to burst upon it from the Kassam crews of the Gaza Strip.
Quite apart from the presence at the helm of a chastened prime minister, a more experienced defense minister and a quietly effective chief of General Staff, many other central factors combined to give the operation a realistic chance of success.
The IDF had spent months preparing for the conflict, gathering intelligence on Hamas targets, training for specific missions.
Gaza was relatively familiar territory for the IDF, which had been deployed there until the disengagement of 2005.
Quiet diplomatic efforts had been under way to explain the nature of the challenge Israel was facing - the untenability of having a widening swathe of a tiny country held hostage to Hamas's improving rocketeers.
Public diplomacy had been geared up, too, with a unified hierarchy organized by Yarden Vatikai in the Prime Minister's Office, and practiced diplomats trained for action on the foreign language media battlefields.
Southern Israel had proven demonstrably resilient, having endured eight years of Kassam attacks, and was thus relieved, though understandably anxious, as the IDF set about seeking a long-term respite. The coordination of the Home Front Command was far more efficient than in 2006, with local authorities well briefed for the challenges.
The enemy, though viciously motivated and supremely indifferent to loss of life - it ruthlessly killed its own people when wresting power in Gaza in June 2007 - was far less equipped for the fight than that other Iranian proxy army to the north, Hizbullah. Its rocket capacity was limited, and its ability to melt away much constrained, especially given Egypt's refusal to let its border with Gaza serve as Hamas's supply import route and terrorist escape route.
In fact, Egypt's unprecedented criticism of Hamas, for bringing disaster to bear on Gaza by maintaining rocket attacks on Israel and cancelling the misnamed "truce," was another major asset for Israel, in turn helping to mollify some of the inevitable international criticism of the resort to force.
NEVERTHELESS, AS early as Tuesday evening, sources in the defense establishment were indicating that Barak was ready to agree to a 48-hour "humanitarian" time-out in the operation - as requested by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner - which might turn into a permanent cease-fire if Hamas halted the rocket attacks.
Adherents of the notion claimed the air force had exhausted its "bank" of Hamas targets in Gaza and that there was little more that could be done from the air for now, while bad weather meant a ground assault was not practicable for the next couple of days anyway. They said Israel would gain greater international support for displaying a willingness to sanction a suspension of the operation, and that if Hamas nevertheless continued to fire rockets, Israel could renew the assault with greater legitimacy. And they noted that Israel had spurned the chance of a cease-fire early in the Second Lebanon War, and come to rue the missed opportunity.
None of these arguments withstands serious scrutiny. The "bank" of targets continually refreshes so long as Hamas attempts to govern Gaza. Bad weather might necessitate delayed actions, but not a formal commitment to inaction. Yes, Israel might score points if Hamas continued firing through a time-out, but what if it didn't? The operation would be over without its goal attained. And while the unready IDF might indeed have benefited from an early cease-fire in 2006, to take the time to properly prepare for the confrontation with Hizbullah, this time Ashkenazi had made clear that it was ready to execute its battle plan.
After discussion by Barak, Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that night, the time-out was rejected. On Wednesday, officials attempted to suggest it had never been seriously contemplated. But Ashkenazi, for one, plainly believed that it was a plausible possibility; he went so far as to approve the release of a statement on Tuesday afternoon dissociating the IDF from any role in hatching or advancing the idea.
On Wednesday, Olmert declared that "we didn't initiate the Gaza operation in order to end it while Israeli towns are still under fire." So why was Barak weighing the time-out, and thus seemingly signalling a desired Israeli countdown toward a cease-fire?
Hamas has been firing rockets more deeply than ever into Israel - as far as Beersheba since Tuesday, bringing an estimated 800,000 Israelis into range. Though it has sustained considerable losses, it is anything but broken, as the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Yuval Diskin, told the cabinet on Wednesday. Almost all of its leadership has gone safely to ground. Its armed forces are essentially intact. It may be temporarily unable to effectively govern Gaza at present, but it retains its capacity to regain its hold if the operation ceases.
Barak's readiness to contemplate the time-out at so early a juncture suggested that the defense minister was himself uncertain that Israel could indeed effectively quash the Hamas threat. By extension, it conveyed a similar sense of uncertainty to the IDF and to those international players who have explicitly or tacitly backed Israel in this endeavor. And what a boost it must have been to Hamas and its Islamist supporters.
THIS IS not to say that the stewards of this operation should be sending great convoys of tanks plunging through the mud into Gaza - to be gleefully confronted by a Hamas force that has been preparing - booby-trapping roads and buildings, setting ambushes - for precisely such an eventuality.
The IAF assaults have smashed the symbols of Hamas power, bombed many of the tunnels that are its lifeline, blown up many of its rocket silos, hit some of its weapons stores and laboratories, and killed several of its key commanders.
If much of what can be achieved from the air was indeed achieved early in this operation, other targets will nevertheless appear as Hamas leaders seek to emerge from the bunkers - as was the case on Thursday afternoon when Nizar Rayyan was killed. And if they do not show their faces, Hamas will gradually lose more credibility, and ultimately lose the capacity to govern.
Meanwhile, astute use of forces on the ground where and when necessitated - whether to tackle concentrations of terrorist power as in Operation Defensive Shield, or to target weapons stores and rocket silos callously placed by Hamas in dense residential areas unreachable from the air - would gradually reduce Hamas's capacity to threaten Israel.
As the original goal made plain, this confrontation must be concluded with Israel in a position of strength, able to dictate conditions that will prevent a resurgence of the Hamas threat in the long-term. Israel must retain ongoing freedom for military action, enabling the IDF to prevent the homefront - the schools, the kindergartens - from again becoming the front line.
A cease-fire, by contrast, that leaves Hamas able - as it was during the months of the last lull - to move around freely and organize for battle, to import arms and to improve its weaponry, would mean Operation Cast Lead had achieved nothing.
It would suggest a further deterioration since 2006, when Israel's leadership was plainly inexperienced and underqualified. Here and now, Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran and Syria would proclaim, Israel - having once more chosen to seek a decisive outcome after its people came under unprovoked attack, facing a force less formidable than Hizbullah, and led by a veteran defense minister and a highly regarded IDF chief - was again ultimately deterred.
AFTER THE shock of the initial air strikes, Operation Cast Lead was predicated on the basis of weeks, not days - a strategic, systematic effort to change the reality in the South.
It worked for Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. If Israeli civilians are to live free from the terror threat, it needs to work in Gaza.