Israel's final countdown

This is it, Israel's last chance to achieve a victory in what has turned into a long and bloody battle. This is Israel's final countdown. On Tuesday, troops from the Paratrooper's Brigade milled around the pool of a community along the northern border getting in some relaxation time before they were sent into Lebanon later in the day. The soldiers, who took over the pastoral hillside community and unfolded military-issued cots in the middle of patches of grass, were sitting around nervously awaiting their final orders that they knew would send them into Lebanon to try to save Israel from failure. The diplomatic pressure was mounting, military officials complained Tuesday. The operation, they said, was running out of time and the only way to achieve victory - translated into the extermination of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon - was to pull out the last card up the IDF's sleeve - a massive ground incursion. For the first time in six years since Israel's withdrawal, reservists were gearing up Tuesday night to be sent into Lebanon to beef up the already-massive IDF presence - estimated at several thousand soldiers - in the southern villages. The idea now, the IDF said, was to push Hizbullah back to the Litani River and even further north until it lost the ability to launch attacks against Israel. Ground troops have so far conducted two operations in southern Lebanon - one in Maroun a-Ras and another in Bint Jbail. Both were described as heroic and have already become the symbols that IDF officers refer to in their daily briefings with reporters. But the IDF knows that those battles will quickly be forgotten. This war is different than past wars, such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, during which Israel fought for its mere survival. This war, the IDF claims, is necessary, although for a different reason - to create a new diplomatic order in southern Lebanon, one that would produce a new, stable and Hizbullah-free reality. From the beginning of this campaign, which enters its fourth week on Wednesday, there were officers calling for a massive ground incursion. That did not happen, and instead the military took the aerial route under which the IAF struck thousands of targets across Lebanon for over a week. Some say that IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz's background as an IAF pilot made ground operations foreign to him and that was what postponed the inevitable. Others say that the reluctance to launch the ground operation had to do with the IDF's trauma from its past experience in Lebanon - an 18-year presence it maintained there that ended in May 2000. But even if the IDF's last-ditch effort were to bring the desperately-needed success Israel is hoping for, there are already officers who are behind closed doors calling for an inquiry into the way this campaign was directed. On Tuesday, Defense Minister Amir Peretz confirmed that there would be a need to investigate and ask questions, although, he said, only after the war was over. "There is no room for criticism now," Peretz said. "There will be time to judge things after the war is over."