Amir Oren
Haaretz (Opinion)
December 31, 2008 - 1:00am

Almost every war of the last four decades has resulted in the ouster of a defense minister. Levi Eshkol lost the defense portfolio on the eve of the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan after the Yom Kippur War, Ariel Sharon after the First Lebanon War, Amir Peretz after the Second Lebanon War. Current defense minister Ehud Barak, whose performance during the first days of Operation Cast Lead increased his public support, spoiled his image Tuesday with his very own words. His ambiguous statements, from behind the transparent veil of an "off-the-record conversation," once again lowered him from the rank of commander to that of politician.

Barak, at a meeting with his aides and half a dozen guests, said things that were meant for publication, but not for attribution. The result was miserable, in terms of both content and form. He confused the public just when the aims of the operation seemed crystal clear and enjoyed broad support.

He did not explain the connection between the stable, long-term cease-fire whose achievement - and nothing else - would justify ending the operation, and a limited cease-fire called solely to enable negotiations on the larger cease-fire. The opposition he aroused from his colleagues in the government and senior defense officials managed to put the weaknesses of the group that will decide the operation's future at the top of the agenda.

He thereby turned Tuesday's main story from Israel versus Hamas to Barak versus Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin.

The deceptive labeling on the package was the media's attribution of the recommendation that Olmert respond favorably to a French proposal for a 48-hour cease-fire to "the defense establishment." Other senior officials in that establishment, with its multitude of services, branches and directorates, hastened to deny that they had anything to do with the recommendation. Barak did not engage in orderly staff work with the IDF and Shin Bet before giving his briefing. He informed Ashkenazi and Diskin of the content before it was published, but this was an order from above.

Diskin opposed it unequivocally. He is the only person authorized to speak for the Shin Bet, but in this case, his opinion was shared by G., the head of the agency's southern district, and other senior Shin Bet officials. Ashkenazi - who, like Barak, and unlike Diskin, G. and GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant, was one of the last to throw his support behind Operation Cast Lead - does not want to stop the operation now, before it has racked up any clear achievements. If the politicians impose a cease-fire on him, he will salute, and he will also take care not to torpedo any diplomatic initiative. But do not expect him to volunteer to sign the recommendation. In his view, the ministers should decide for themselves what to do, and after they decide, he will do it.

Barak is willing to serve Gaza a two-course meal - first the humanitarian course, then a double portion. This will not be a French kiss, but an Israeli version of what the American army, hit by a paralyzing sandstorm on its way to Baghdad in March 2003, termed an "operational halt" before resuming its advance. During the two-day truce, the IDF will arm itself with a new target bank, fresh intelligence, refreshed troops and domestic and international understanding of the need for a ground operation.

The politicians who are competing against Barak, and the civil servants who are not (yet) in politics, do not care if Barak steals home base behind Bernard Kouchner's back. But they refuse to let him do it on their backs. Whoever is deemed responsible for halting the operation prematurely will take a hit both in the media and at the ballot box. Yet the same is true of anyone who fails to exploit a genuine opportunity to cash in on his investment at a bargain price.

Since Saturday, Ashkenazi had held the General Staff to a schedule of discussions and situation assessments that might be termed a "war clock." Now, along comes the famed watch repairman, Barak, and threatens to portray him as the one eager to stop the operation prematurely, before it has achieved its goal. The trouble is that there is no clock that shows, in real time, the exact moment when the operation should end  the one that is neither too early nor too late.


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