Analysis: What are our goals in this war, anyway?

As the ministers arrive at their weekly meeting on Sunday morning at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, they'll be running a tighter media gauntlet than usual with reporters eager to glean something out of those who should know. As usual the more senior ministers, like Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Vice Premier Shimon Peres won't deign to stop and chat with the hacks, who will have no choice but to make do with the likes of Culture Minister Ophir Paz-Pines and MK Ya'akov Edri, who probably are less in the know than some of the reporters themselves. At the start of the meeting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will say a few terse words and the cameras will be ushered out. It's not at all clear that even if one of the "inner circle" ministers or Olmert himself were willing to answer a few questions, they would have the answers. Ten days into the conflict with Hizbullah, and it's also not clear whether Israel is any closer to achieving its goals, or even what exactly those goals are. In unofficial interviews over the end of last week (the no-interview policy is still in place), Olmert and Peretz emphasized that in the meantime things are going well, the IDF operation is going on without any major hitches, morale at home is high despite the incessant bombardment and civilian losses and perhaps most surprisingly, international criticism is muted and it looks like the US will continue providing a diplomatic umbrella for at least another week of airborne attacks. But none of these achievements are objectives in themselves, and neither the prime minister nor the defense minister have been able to elaborate on their preferred outcome. Of course, what Israel wants to gain from this almost-war is clear - a situation in which Hizbullah ceases to exist as a military force capable of launching attacks on Israel. But among the leadership and the higher echelons of the military, intelligence and diplomatic establishments, there is no clear idea on how this is to be achieved. Two main solutions or a combination of them have been floated, mainly by self-interested international sources. Either a multi-national force will be stationed in the border region or the Lebanese army will finally take responsibility for its own borders. But there is no real guarantee that a new force will be any better than the current useless UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). What incentive will these new soldiers have to deter - by force, if necessary by force - Hizbullah from rebuilding its strongholds? Of course, if we could get some British or American soldiers, there might be hope, but they are spread too thin as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan and there is little chance that we could do better than the corrupt and ineffectual soldiers from Ghana, India, France and Poland currently comprising UNIFIL. And even if the new force were to prove itself effective in its mandated area of control, who would stop Hizbullah from firing missiles from further up north? The Lebanese army is also not much of a guarantee. If Hizbullah were to finally disarm, many of its fighters might end up being incorporated into that army and stationed back at their old positions. And the government giving that army orders could well end up becoming Hizbullah- dominated in a future elections - the Shi'ite community in Lebanon is the fastest growing sector of the population. Olmert, Peretz and their advisers will have to quickly establish a realistic set of goals because very soon they will have to come up with answers. Every politician and general has been paying lip service to the nation's wonderful unity and perseverance in the face of Hizbullah's unprecedented attacks, and quite rightly too. But the public aren't docile sheep, they deserve to be treated like the grown-ups they are and will soon be demanding answers. Since no official war has been declared, or objective set up, none of us - especially those living and working up north - know for how long they have to go on like this. Businesses large and small have to make contingency plans, families in the middle of the long summer school vacation want to know whether to cancel their reservations, 100,000 reservists are waiting for the phone call to summon them to service. All this is just as important as the answers that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be demanding when she finally arrives on Tuesday. Olmert gave a masterful speech in the Knesset last Monday, but even as rousing orations worked for Winston Churchill when Britain had to find the strength to endure a six-year long war, Israel doesn't have much more than six days to prove its getting somewhere. Right now, after 10 days of intense bombings, Hizbullah is still capable of lobbing 160 missiles a day back in our direction and Hassan Nasrallah is appearing unscathed on Al-Jazeera. On Friday British Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to visit Washington and that will probably be a signal for the start of pressure on Israel to begin reducing the scale of its attacks. The pressure may begin earlier if by mistake a large civilian target is hit on either side. Almost four weeks have passed since the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit by Hamas sparked off this summer's conflict. One of the main distinctions between the first Gaza phase of the fighting, and what has now become the Lebanese-dominated episode, is in the relationship between the IDF and the political leadership. After the clash with Hamas at Kerem Shalom, the army felt that it had to take cover and it allowed Olmert and Peretz to run the show. The politicians were anxious to show who was in charge and even overruled the army's operational recommendations. Since Hizbullah's intervention, the professionals are back and it once again seems as if the army is bringing its prepared plans to the cabinet table and getting them rubber-stamped. Not that the army seems to have been doing too bad a job, but now is the stage that Olmert and Peretz have to regain control of the situation. First they need to determine their main objective and how to achieve it. Once they've come up with a plot, it would be nice if they could find a way of letting us know what it is, preferably before they tell Ms. Rice.