A few minutes before they left for the press conference in which the Pillar of Cloud operation reached its formal conclusion, [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak and [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Liberman closeted themselves in the prime minister's office. Only the three of them. Without assistants and advisers, the triumvirate coordinated their last statements before facing the cameras to market an operation that did not contain even one victory photo vis-à-vis Hamas, and will now accompany the entire election campaign.
The atmosphere was positive and intimate among those who spent most of their time during the last week in night-time meetings, deliberations of the Group of Nine [Inner Cabinet] and frequent phone calls. For a moment, Barak appeared to be the perfect actor that was casted to lead Likud Beiteinu [joint electoral list] — nevertheless, he will have to survive the upcoming elections alone, with the hope of achieving enough independent political power to retain his place as defense minister for another term of office.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been grappling for months with the electoral-threshold issue. Yet in terms of political gain and loss, he is the one to emerge from this military operation with great political capital. As a professional defense minister, his joint work with Netanyahu and Liberman has brought him back to his element, in the eyes of the public. According to the opinion polls that preceded Cloud Pillar, the odds then had been very high that this operation in Gaza would be his finale in the defense ministry.
Nevertheless, the Barak to emerge after [the events of ] this week is the Barak who managed to influence Netanyahu and Liberman to conduct a measured [military] operation; his behavior caused part of the public to want to retain him as the responsible adult in the same position, even after elections. By contrast, Netanyahu and Liberman will have to contend with the disappointment of their right-wing constituency — but these are the troubles of the rich.
In a conversation with him, Barak is satisfied with the results despite the public criticism, and praises the close cooperation between him and Netanyahu and Liberman.
Did you work hard to convince Netanyahu and Liberman to have realistic, measurable objectives?
"In general, we worked well together. Occasionally there were differences of opinion and that is natural, we are talking about very sensitive issues. At the end of the day, the further away you are from the real decision-making circles, when no responsibility rests on your shoulders — the easier it is to transmit absolute clarity and resolve, while the real issues are much more complex and thorny.
"I hear public figures and ministers talking about a ground incursion [into Gaza]. Words are cheap. There is an Arab saying that there are no taxes on words, and this describes the same exact phenomenon. I also heard people those who once were commentators at the TV channel, and now explain with due gravity [as politicians] what exactly should be done."
These are the words Barak uses to allude to journalists who recently jumped into political waters, such as Ofer Shelah and Miki Rosenthal, who filled the [news] studios last week with lots of their advice. Yet he rains praises on the Labor party chairman [Shelly Yachimovich], although it is not clear if she will like this bear-hug during the election campaign, after she was already criticized for toeing Netanyahu's line.
"Shelly Yachimovich did the right thing. She proved that she respects the fact that when decisions are made, you have to be serious. In my eyes, that is an expression of mature behavior," says Barak in Yachimovich's favor. [Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throughout Operation Pillar of Defense].
When you begin an operation like this during an election campaign, you can't disconnect from it. Even Liberman said in an interview that you don't wage large-scale war in Gaza two months before elections, it's best to leave this decision to the next government.
"I didn't hear Liberman say that. I can testify that the elections didn't affect us. An experienced person knows that he must disconnect himself from that [stuff]. Hamas thought that the elections would prevent us from taking action, and we proved them wrong. It did not affect me at all. I must say in praise of the Likud ministers, some of whom are running now in the primaries, that they demonstrated seriousness in the closed discussions, the Group of Nine as well as of the entire Cabinet. The objectives were determined in the Cabinet deliberations, and I wrote up the objectives of the operation based on these discussions. The army was ready to enter the Gaza Strip at a moment's notice and it could be that in the future, we will reach a stage when we will have to do that."
The residents of the South claim that Netanyahu displayed spinelessness vis-à-vis the Hamas. The right-wingers argue that he betrayed his mission?
"To think that out of all leadership teams, a leadership comprised of me, Netanyahu and Liberman is spineless? We displayed discretion and responsibility. People always have the illusion that there is some kind of magic formula that wasn't used. Those who sit in [news] studios always have the resolve and backbone, and want to finish off the work. A person does not choose his parents and a nation does not choose its neighbors. You have to act with force, [but also] with brains and self-control, and not surrender to one's instincts. I don't want to mention cases in which public opinion and the masses backed a military operation by a sweeping majority, then changed their minds within days when the whole business got mired in complications.
"When there are deaths, public opinion changes. The wisdom is to know when the prolongation [of an operation] will not really bring about real additional gains. In this case, the Hamas received a harsh blow, and it will take a long time before it and the [Islamic] Jihad will have an appetite to repeat the experience they have just undergone. I'm not saying that there won't be someone launching rockets here and there against us, but we have the Iron Dome for that."
It was not a trick maneuver
As we try to follow Barak's assessment of the Gaza problem, we return to the Cast Lead campaign in 2008. Then, too, the defense minister aimed for a cease fire in the initial days of the operation, similar to Fire Pillar. Barak believes in managing the conflict via rounds [of hostilities], rounds that become shorter over time.
You led the anti-ground-incursion approach during Cast Lead, as well as this time. When will the time be ripe for such an assault, if ever?
"The bottom line is that we face a very complex and entangled reality in our environment. Iran is in the background, Syria is changing, there is a new government in Egypt. It is in our interests to establish work relations with [Morsi], not only [superficial diplomatic] manners. It is in our interests to preserve the political agreement, and there is also the opportunity to work closely with Egypt. All these things require us not to act out of impulse or knee-jerk reactions.
"When you observe all the military events of the last decades, you clearly see that there were several opportunities to exit [the hostilities] with 90 percent of the achievements in hand, but with only ten percent of the price. The thought that the world is divided into black and white, and that when you're not satisfied with the way things are, you give the other guy a knockout blow and the problem will disappear — well, that is not a mature, serious way to think. Every time we embarked on an extensive military operation in the last 30 years — in 2008 [Cast Lead began then], 2006 [Second Lebanon War] and even the First Lebanon War  — there were several points at which it had been correct, and possible, to stop [the hostilities]. All military campaigns of this type appear as a chain of achievements, followed by standing-in-place plateaus.
"At every potential exit point, you have to carefully weigh whether you want to continue or not. In the recent round of hostilities, we had four slain civilians and two slain soldiers after a week. I suggest that everyone close their eyes and think what price we would have paid had we entered Gaza, meaning also to rule Gaza. Public opinion is very fickle. There were a number of times in which the atmosphere was to go out and conquer, but after the first casualties — everything changed."
You led a massive call-up of the reserves, that post-facto looks like a diversionary trick. Were there moments during the operation this week that you really thought we were close to a ground incursion into Gaza?
"Soldiers were not called up as a scare tactic. There were serious considerations for the mobilization and the preparations, and several deliberations were held about taking steps leading to a ground incursion. One incursion could have led to a second and a third, to the point of conquering Gaza. There are many repercussions to such an incursion. Not only do you endanger your soldiers, you also face problematic political and historical ramifications. I don't flinch at anything, but there's no point in just galloping off to Gaza. I have no nostalgia for the Jibaliya [refugee camp] at all, because we already spent a lot of time there.
"Even if you don't think so [i.e. don't agree with me] now, in a few weeks the entire public and the Southerners will well understand. Memory is short, people don't remember what happened ten years ago because the ability not to remember things clearly [is a gift that] helps people cope with difficulties. There is the natural feeling of "let's give them what they deserve." But leadership must possess a more complex view of what constitutes determination and resolve, even in the political arena. Issues are not disconnected from one another."
Even the casual onlooker notices the renewed honeymoon between Barak and Netanyahu. In fact, the defense minister even defended the prime minister from [former Kadima party opposition leader] Tzipi Livni's attacks; this past week Livni has been showing signs of making a political comeback.
So in the end, as Tzipi Livni claims, Netanyahu did conduct negotiations with Hamas.
"He spoke to Hamas exactly as [Former Primer Minister] Olmert's government did — and Livni was part of Olmert's government. Hamas is dependent on Egypt. It's true that the Egyptian leadership today likes Hamas, these [new Egyptians] are not friends of mine or of [Labor Party MK] Fuad [Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who had a close friendship with former Egyptian President Mubarak].
"It is not correct to say that Netanyahu talked to Hamas. He didn't talk or conduct negotiations with Hamas. This [cease-fire] paper is simply a fig leaf for the losers. They [Hamas] were rather surprised at us. They thought that they can shoot at us and do their rounds every other week, and we thought that they couldn't. Hamas hasn't gained a thing. The only achievement they have scored is that they used to write the understandings in handwriting, and now it is printed. That is not an agreement, there is no agreement. And things like this also took place in the Olmert government too."