Analysis: A head-spinning time-out?

Whose heads was Barak spinning with talk of a 48-hour cease-fire?

olmert barak livni 248 (photo credit: GPO)
olmert barak livni 248
(photo credit: GPO)
Operation Cast Lead, launched with the defined goal of restoring security to the Kassam-battered south of Israel, was code-named for the Haim Nahman Bialik poem about a Hanukka spinning top cast from solid lead. If the code name was relevant on Saturday for the Hanukka timing, it gained new resonance on Tuesday night because of the spinning reference. The notion that Israel was leaning toward suspending the operation for 48 hours, and indefinitely if Hamas ceases its rocket fire, seemed head-spinning, indeed. It plainly dizzied the Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. As soon as reports broke that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was considering accepting a proposal to this end from French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and would take it to his colleagues Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Tuesday night for a decision, Ashkenazi approved the release of a statement dissociating the IDF from any role in hatching or advancing the idea. Earlier Tuesday, Ashkenazi had made a brief public appearance, praising his forces for their roles thus far, noting that difficult challenges lay ahead, and stressing that "the job is not yet done." Adherents of the time-out quickly marshalled a variety of arguments in its favor. It was suggested by some defense establishment sources that 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. It was suggested that Israel would gain greater international support for displaying a willingness to sanction a "humanitarian" suspension of the operation, and that if Hamas nevertheless continued to fire rockets, Israel could renew the assault on Hamas with greater legitimacy. It was argued that Israel had spurned the chance of a cease-fire earlier in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and come to rue the missed opportunity. Set against these arguments, however, was that original specific goal for the resort to force: restoring security to the South. Some senior Israelis, notably UN Ambassador Gavriela Shalev, have expanded the declared scope to assert that Israel will not stop until Hamas is destroyed. But even the less grandiose official interpretations, offered by Olmert and on down the hierarchy, have stressed the need not merely for a halt to the rockets, but for the creation of "a different reality" in which Hamas was utterly deterred from firing, and preferably also rendered utterly incapable of doing so. Back in reality, Hamas, as of Tuesday night, was firing rockets more deeply than ever into Israel - as far as Beersheba, in fact, bringing an estimated 800,000 Israelis into range. Though it had sustained considerable losses over the four days of air strikes, it was anything but broken. Almost all of its leadership had gone safely to ground. Its armed forces were essentially intact. It retained its capacity to maintain its hold on Gaza. However the government might want to describe a cessation of hostilities, therefore, Hamas would patently brand it a victory - proof of Israel's reluctance to engage it on the ground - and this would bolster its standing further still. In the light of that reality, could Israel possibly argue that Operation Cast Lead had restored security to the South? According to some reports on Tuesday evening, Olmert shared just this unhappy assessment, and was unenthusiastic about the time-out idea. For Ashkenazi, an aborted operation would presumably be immensely galling. Since succeeding Dan Halutz, the unsuccessful military chief of the 2006 war, Ashkenazi has quietly gone about restoring the IDF's fighting capabilities. Halutz's IDF was unprepared for the hurried resort to war in 2006, and would have been served by an early cease-fire that enabled better planning for an assault on Hizbullah. Ashkenazi's IDF, by contrast, has trained relentlessly to effectively confront Hamas, and has been readying these last few days for a carefully thought-out use of ground forces. That the Olmert-Barak-Livni triumvirate was meeting Tuesday night even as the defense minister was securing formal approval for a possible call-up of 2,500 additional reservists only deepened the sense of discord and confusion at the Israeli helm. So farcical did some of the emerging contradictory messages appear, indeed, that one had to wonder whether the very publicly contemplated idea of a time-out, spreading uncertainty and bafflement, amounted to another of Barak's skilled deceptions or manipulations. But if so, whose heads was the defense minister deliberately spinning?