Stick to the policy of restraint or launch a military offensive in Gaza? The question is expected to dominate the agenda at Wednesday morning's meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni.
The narrowest forum in the Israeli government will convene at 11:00 am to discuss the current policies employed in regards to the Palestinian Authority. This ahead of several key events on the horizon - the approaching expiration of the truce with Gaza's armed groups on December 19th, the possible elections in the Palestinian Authority on January 9th and the inauguration of the Obama Administration on January 20th.
Olmert and Livni both support an Israeli response of any scope in response to the incessant projectile attacks on Israel's southern communities. Barak, however, keen to maintain the lull, objects to any escalation on the IDF's part.
But despite the given Israeli interest in the truce, the sheer volume of the attacks – over 200 Qassams and mortar shells have been fired into the western Negev over the past month – necessitate the discussion of military action.
Livni, who called the meeting, is demanding an Israeli response to every rocket or shell fired from Gaza. "Fire must be answered with fire," she said.
"I don't care what the return address on the missile is, as far as I'm concerned Hamas is responsible for all artillery fired from Gaza."
Livni's associates supported her stance. "The current situation is intolerable," one said. "Hamas and the terror organizations are firing. We're closing the crossings, but not retaliating militarily. The result: The fire continues. "The IDF must act. The level of action should be determined according to the options the army sets before us. An effective military operation will clarify to Hamas that there is a price to terrorism, there is a price to extremism."
Olmert himself sounded decidedly determined regarding the possibility of a military offensive during a visit to Sderot and the neighboring Kibbutz Gevim on Tuesday. "I would like to say with the greatest of caution that we do not for one moment tolerate a kind of life where you are sent running to shelters to hide from our enemies.
"We know what needs to be done, we also know when and how to do it... The other side also knows that Israel knows not only just to defend itself, but also how to strike."
'Hamas wants better terms next truce'However the Prime Minister's Office made clear late Tuesday night that according to the intelligence currently in Israel's hands "Hamas is only deteriorating the situation at the present in order to secure better conditions for the next truce. Israel won't readily accept the conditions of the lull as they were before, and certainly not based on the current situation.
"The prime minister has singled out three issues for intensive handling: The work on Gilad Shalit, which the prime minister is leading. Ehud Barak is working on the legal aspects – how to deal with responding towards those firing from Gaza, including the possibility of sanctions such as impairing electricity and infrastructure.
"And the third issue is operational – what to do in Gaza and how to do it if and when we act. The work on all three topics is nearly done, with the deadline taking into account the date the Tahadiya (truce) expires, December 19th."
Barak, on his part, is lobbying to avoid military escalation at the present time, and certainly before the aforementioned work is completed. Earlier this week he responded to statements made by Livni on the matter, saying "I know this is a scorching political season, and I am aware of the suffering of the residents
And so despite the belief in the political-defense echelon that the current situation is intolerable, expect no sudden decisions at the present. The ongoing staff work Barak noted is one factor in this – but so are the upcoming changes in the White House, the volatile political situation in Israel and the fear of derailing the negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of his own elections. Another point of consideration is the possibility that an operation in Gaza could lead to a flare-up with Hizbullah on Israel's northern border.