Analysis: From 'closer-than-ever' operation to truce

With elections inching closer, a Gaza operation would not allow Barak to focus his attention on politics.

soldiers gaza cool 224  (photo credit: AP)
soldiers gaza cool 224
(photo credit: AP)
Last Thursday, a few hours after 51-year-old Amnon Rozenberg was killed in a mortar attack on kibbutz Nir Oz, Defense Minister Ehud Barak headed down south for a meeting with local council chiefs in the wake of the escalation on the Gaza front. "A military operation is closer than ever," Barak told the council heads. "And it may even precede a cease-fire." This was not the first time Barak spoke of a "closer-than-ever" military operation. He has been using that phrase since taking office last June. Take another example from September last year, when Barak said in a radio interview that "we are nearing an extensive operation in Gaza." Ten months have passed since that interview, and the large-scale operation has yet to happen. On Wednesday, after months of stalling, the security cabinet finally made a decision not to launch an operation, but to proceed with the Egyptian-mediated cease-fire track. On Thursday, Barak's senior aide Amos Gilad will fly to Cairo to convey Israel's official decision to accept the truce. The cabinet meeting began Wednesday morning with many of the ministers flexing their muscles. Vice Premier Haim Ramon said in an early-morning radio interview that he would push for "toppling the Hamas regime." The only way to do that, he said, was to launch a large-scale operation in Gaza. Other ministers - such as Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz - were also said to be in favor of a military operation. Nevertheless, the cabinet came out with a decision to nix a Gaza op for now and instead give the Egyptian track one last chance. According to officials involved in the talks with Egypt, a cease-fire will likely go into effect before the weekend. The person who pushed in the cabinet for accepting the truce was none other than Barak, the same Barak who said less than a week ago that a military operation was closer than ever. There are a number of reasons behind Barak's decision, but first and foremost - like almost everything these days - it has to do with politics. With the elections around the corner, Barak, as chairman of the Labor Party, needs to focus his attention on politics. An operation in Gaza would not allow him to do that. There are also other, more professional considerations. First, Israel does not want to insult Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A rejection of his country's cease-fire proposal would constitute a slap in the Egyptian leader's face. While relations with Cairo are shaky, Israel does value its strategic ties with Egypt, which today is one of the few Arab and Muslim countries that has formalized ties with Jerusalem. Secondly, if Israel had rejected the offer and instead embarked on an operation, it would have been perceived - in this case - as the aggressor, since Hamas would be able to claim that it was prepared for a truce but Israel was not. Lastly, there remains the question of what the goal of such an operation would be. Since last June - the same month that Hamas ran down Fatah forces and took over Gaza - nothing has changed dramatically as far as creating an exit strategy for Israel following an invasion of the Strip. Fatah is incapable of returning to control Gaza, and the likelihood of a multinational force deploying there remains slim.