gaza smoke 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
While Operation Cast Lead has shown that the IDF, under the cautious and calculated leadership of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, has learned the lessons of the Second Lebanon War, it is becoming depressingly clearer that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has not. Livni did not measure up to the job in the Second Lebanon War when she failed to temper Ehud Olmert's rash enthusiasm for a military clash with Hizbullah and was unable to persuade the cabinet of the need for a quick, diplomatic exit from Lebanon. This time, in one of the strangest reversal of roles seen around an Israeli cabinet table, the foreign minister is ignoring the defense establishment's ability to provide the government with reasonable exit points from a military operation, thereby ensuring the fighting continues.
In the wake of the Second Lebanon War, the government determinedly set low goals for Operation Cast Lead. Thankfully, instead of choosing the sound bite-attractive but difficult-to-achieve policy of regime change and the toppling of Hamas, which as the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown is not always the best way forward, it rightly declared that its sole aim was to stop Hamas' firing of rockets from Gaza. Even the return of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit was not mentioned as a war aim.
Now, two weeks after the fighting started, this declared aim has been achieved. True, rockets may still be falling, but this is because as long as the fighting officially continues, Hamas will continue firing even though it knows it has lost. After more than 850 Palestinians have been killed, dozens of smuggling tunnels destroyed and Hamas offices bombed into oblivion, Hamas, like Hizbullah before it, has learned its lesson the hard way of assuming that Israel would never react. A cease-fire, on terms favorable to Israel, is there for the reaching.
IN ACHIEVING this point, with low Israeli casualties, Barak has proved his worth. First, he was right to delay the operation and to proceed with the six-month truce with Hamas. Not only did this give the residents of the South a much-needed respite from the daily rocket fire from Gaza, it gave the IDF more time to prepare for a military operation should it be needed, even at the cost of allowing Hamas to develop and smuggle in its longer-range rockets. More importantly, the six-month quiet also gave Jerusalem the moral legitimacy when the time eventually came to launch its counterattack.
Despite the growing international criticism, which was inevitable once innocent Palestinian civilians became increasingly the victims of the response, it is important to remember that at the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, Israel received a free hand from the international community to respond to Hamas' breach of the six-month cease-fire. Given that the Arab world was also surprisingly acquiescent at the beginning of the operation, it is fair to say that the initial quiet international support was not simply a result of the Christmas holiday period.
Secondly, Barak and Ashkenazi structured the IDF's campaign to give the government a chance to declare victory at a number of convenient exit points, all designed to avoid the need of reoccupying the Gaza Strip and becoming entrenched there just as the country was bogged down in the First Lebanon War. That war was initially launched as a short-term campaign to remove the North from the threat of Palestinian terrorism and ended up as a two-decade occupation of southern Lebanon and the creation of Hizbullah as a new enemy.
THE FIRST exit point came immediately after the successful air assault on Gaza and the French suggestion for a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire. This diplomatic proposal was supported by Barak but immediately shot down by Livni. The then inevitable deployment of ground forces, which has been accompanied by the first IDF combat fatalities as well as the killing of scores of civilians, created the second exit point, with the UN Security Council resolution at the end of last week calling for an immediate cease-fire, a resolution which notably was not vetoed by the US, despite Olmert's last-minute pleas to President George W Bush.
The government's rejection of this resolution increases the chances of Operation Cast Lead turning into the operation it did not want: an all-out war against Hamas and reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. Livni, who unlike Barak and Olmert has spent the whole of the IDF campaign in front of the cameras and microphones in what seems to be a desperate attempt to impress next month's voters of her relevance, told The Washington Post this weekend that the government opposes the UN call for a cease-fire because it grants Hamas legitimacy and places the organization on the same level as Israel.
The Security Council resolution is indeed unsatisfactory. First of all, it fails to place the blame for the current round of fighting, as it should, on Hamas. If Hamas were not firing rockets, the IDF would have had no need to launch Operation Cast Lead. Moreover, the cease-fire call does not address the vital issue of how to prevent the future smuggling of rockets into Gaza via the tunnels under its border with Egypt and neither does it call for returning the Strip to the control of the Palestinian Authority and for the disarming of Hamas and other terror groups there.
But had the foreign minister been more effective in building up an international coalition of diplomatic support for Israel's position, both during the six-month cease-fire and the first days of the conflict, then a more favorable UN resolution could have been crafted. The army has done its job; Livni so far has squandered the opportunity the IDF has created.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post