The IDF operation in Gaza is approaching a critical junction. Monday was not an easy day in respect to the army’s ground operations in the Strip; it was also a day devoid of news on the diplomatic front. The three “kitchenette” ministers who held their daily assessment session did not reach any dramatic decisions.
Their dilemma can be described as follows: They feel that by the end of the operation they must boast an achievement. Otherwise, this operation won’t end with a sense of victory. Such achievement is supposed to be drawn from the ground operations, or from the global diplomatic effort, or from both. They are concerned that if no accomplishments can be boasted, the deterrence effect that prompted Israel to embark on the operation won’t be achieved.
The trap here is that the more Israel expands the ground operation, the more exposed its soldiers become, and casualties immediately affect the sense of victory. This is what Barak was talking about on the eve of the operation when he discussed cost versus benefit considerations.
The international activity is mostly undertaken through the American track: Israel has made it clear to the United States that it will not be ending the Gaza incursion as long as the Egyptians refrain from committing to changing realities on the Philadelphi Route. The Israeli request to America is translated into direct and firm American pressure on the Egyptian government. There are other diplomatic tracks, but this is the decisive one.
The danger at this time is that the operation will roll towards the same failures that undermined Israel in the past; first of all, the shift from a limited operation to a broad one due to inertia - the illusion that whatever cannot be achieved by force may be achieved by even more force.
There are some IDF elements – not the entire IDF – who believe that their job is to push for expanding the operation, and that this is the right move needed to defeat Hamas. Mossad Chief Meir Dagan is also pushing in that direction. He attaches great significance to an unequivocal outcome for this operation that would resonate across the Arab world.
The second problem is the possibility of treading water. It mostly pertains to troops on the ground and also to policy-makers in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. When the army does not march forward, it has to deploy in a defensive mode, and while doing so it becomes exposed to mishaps and attacks by enemy cells. This was the case in the 2006 war in Lebanon, and this may happen in Gaza as well. Treading water is also bad for the political leadership, which must present military progress to the world in order to prompt it into action in line with Israel’s interests.
Addicted gamblers are said not to know when to stop. When things are going well for them, they continue to gamble, and when things are not going too well, they most certainly continue to gamble. I certainly hope that our three top ministers are completely immune to this weakness. The current stage in the ground assault must be fully utilized, and then completed. As to the next stages, they would do well to engage in a great deal thinking before reaching decisions that are difficult to reverse.