During one of my long nights in Beersheba, between one Color Red alert to another, I thought to myself: It's a shame that Netanyahu isn't an iron dome. He has learned so many important things throughout his many years in politics, but he hasn't learned to separate the wheat from the chaff, to distinguish between a dangerous enemy and an insignificant one.
Operation Pillar of Defense was meant to replicate Operation Cast Lead of four years ago, with some marginal improvements. The IDF, at the instructions of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, perceived the operation as one round of many: There were rules to the game between Israel and Hamas. The rules were gradually worn out to our disadvantage, both in terms of the Palestinians' activity against the IDF and in terms of the permission Hamas gave to itself and to other organizations to fire rockets at Israeli communities. The IDF will deal the organizations a series of blows from the air. Egypt will intervene. A ceasefire will be obtained, based on the previous rules of the game. And then the rules will wear out again, and there will be another round, and another wear out, and another round.
Everyone understood that only two moves could break the vicious circle: Occupying Gaza and keeping it under the control of IDF soldiers, or accepting Hamas. Netanyahu won't agree to either one of them.
The lessons learned from Operation Cast Lead were tactical: The intelligence improved, allowing Israel to bomb more important targets on the day the operation was launched; the use of different aircraft improved; the number of casualties among Gaza's civilians was significantly reduced; and, of course, the Israelis in southern and central Israel felt more protected thanks to the Iron Dome system.
But they didn't change anything in the essence. After five days of fighting, the government faces the same dilemma the previous government was tormented by: Hamas is not giving up; its regime has not collapsed; Ismail Haniyeh has not come out of the bunker with his hands up. On the contrary – Hamas continues to fire rockets, and even if it fails to kill Israelis, it definitely disrupts their life, from Beersheba to Tel Aviv.
What is the right thing to do?
Compared to Cast Lead, the conditions have even become worse: Then, Israel was able to recruit Egypt to force a ceasefire on Hamas. Today, the Egyptian government's heart lies with Hamas. It is interested in a ceasefire, but one which will present Hamas as the winner. Then, a large part of the Arab world hoped for Hamas' downfall. Today, those same governments stand by Hamas.
What is the right thing to do? Over the weekend, Netanyahu realized that there is a problem. An Israeli agreement to end the operation with tilting the balance, with a feeling of a tie, will not be seen favorably by the public. That's what happened at the end of Cast Lead: The voters were disappointed, and in the elections held three weeks later they transferred two Knesset seats from Kadima to the Right. Then, Netanyahu was on the benefiting side. Now he's on the responsible side.
He chose a different way: To threaten Egypt and Hamas with a ground offensive. Barak, who as defense minister in Cast Lead pushed for a ground offensive at precisely this stage, saw no choice but to join the threats. The call up of reserve soldiers was aimed at validating these threats.
When making threats, it's not enough to call up forces. You must convince everyone that a ground offensive has a purpose justifying the cost – fallen soldiers, the killing of civilians on the other side, the loss of international support. In Barak's instructions to the IDF, he made it clear that he does not believe a ground offensive will change the situation. He stuck to the minor goals he had set. Five days have passed since then.
And so once again, like in 2006 and in 2008, Israel finds itself on the brink of entanglement. Instead of settling for the goals it achieved, the political echelon is tormented by how to emerge from this affair with a sense of victory. What will they say in Gaza, what will they say in the Arab world and, most importantly, what will Israeli voters say in two months. What about credibility? The government learns once again what its predecessors had already learned: All beginnings are easy, but the way out is the hardest.