The first signs of tension began appearing at the beginning of the IDF's ground offensive - called Operation Hot Winter - against Hamas Kassam rocket squads in the northern Gaza Strip earlier this month. It was then, as soldiers from the Givati Brigade were clashing with Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists in Jabalya, that Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked the IDF for a list of names of top Hamas political and military figures who could be assassinated. The list never made its way to Barak's desk. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi decided not to compile it, out of concern that if the assassination of a top Hamas official were ordered, the Palestinians' wrath would be taken out on their bargaining chip, Gilad Schalit. The tension in the relations between the two top defense officials continued throughout the operation, which ended Monday morning, March 3, with Givati's withdrawal and against Barak's request that the soldiers stay in the field. At the time, IDF sources said that Ashkenazi had decided to pull the troops out of Gaza because he had not received clear directives from the political echelon to continue the operation. "There were conflicting agendas," an official in the Defense Ministry explained this week. "Barak wanted to appear politically aggressive, and Ashkenazi refused to allow his troops to be used as political pawns by the defense minister." Restoring his political power has been at the core of many of Barak's decisions in recent months, sometimes - his political opponents say - at the expense of what is best for Israel. After taking up the defense post in June, Barak made no secret of his real desire - to again become Israel's prime minister, a position he lost to Ariel Sharon in the 2001 elections. Even before settling in on the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry, Barak's public relations strategy was to minimize contact with the press and with anything politically related. After beating out Ami Ayalon and Amir Peretz in the Labor Party primaries, Barak appointed party secretary-general Eitan Cabel and National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer as his liaisons for all of the party's institutions. Barak still refuses - as did his predecessors, Peretz and Shaul Mofaz - to grant general media access to his weekly tours of IDF bases, preferring to allow small groups of reporters to accompany him from time to time. "Barak tried to create an image of being 'Mr. Security' and [that] Israel's security was his only concern," a defense official explained this week. "But then, when polls continued to show him lagging behind all of his opponents, he began focusing more on politics." The polls indeed show that things have not been going as planned for Barak, who continues - despite his efforts to distinguish himself - to lag far behind Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu. This, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gaining steam and breathing down his neck. With predictions that elections could be held as early as next year, Barak, his associates say, is feeling the pressure. He also understands that the time to prove himself is now, and that if he ever wants to be prime minister again, he will need to provide security for the residents of Sderot and other Gaza-belt communities. BARAK'S MANTRA changes every few weeks. Before Operation Hot Winter, Barak took almost every opportunity to say that "every day that passes draws a large-scale operation into Gaza closer." After the last operation, and in light of the lull in rocket fire and Egyptian efforts to obtain a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Barak switched his tone. Instead of speaking about a large-scale operation, he dismissed the notion of a cease-fire and warned of additional small-scale operations to come. This week - under pressure from the US administration - the message once again changed, with Barak speaking daily about the goodwill gestures he has offered the Palestinians and plans to begin implementing them in the near future. Pressure on Barak from Washington started months ago, when his constant refusal to ease restrictions in the West Bank was perceived as the main obstacle to progress in the peace talks. The pressure gained momentum in recent weeks, with Barak's refusal to attend a trilateral meeting on implementing the road map hosted by US Lt.-Gen. William Fraser, at which Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad also participated. The attempts to appease public pressure reached a high point last week, when Barak sent Defense Ministry Dir.-Gen. Pinchas Buhris to White Sands, New Mexico, to again examine the Nautilus laser system rejected by Israel half a year ago as a potential defense system against Kassam rockets. At the time, the ministry granted the tender to Rafael, which is developing the Iron Dome missile defense system for the Kassam. "The trip to New Mexico was set up so that people would think that Barak is doing everything possible to find a solution," said one defense official. "Everyone in the defense establishment knew that nothing would change because of the trip." Regarding Gaza, Barak is waiting for the outcome of the talks between Hamas and Egypt. His top adviser, Amos Gilad, has been in Cairo almost every week over the past month for talks with Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who is mediating between the sides. The relative lull in rocket fire actually provides Barak with a little quiet on the political front, and gives him an opportunity to make gestures to the Palestinians he otherwise would not be able to make. However, with predictions that the lull is soon to be over, Barak will once again be looking for a new political strategy for keeping his "Mr. Security"title.