Only a handful of people in Israel really know how close the Israel Defense Forces came Tuesday night to staging another ground incursion into the Gaza Strip. The orders were given, the troops were briefed, and everyone was in the right frame of mind, as just hours earlier, the Israeli delegation to Cairo had returned empty handed.
The stalled negotiations spelled only one thing: fighting was about to resume on the ground. It was the main lesson from the prior cease-fire, in which Israel faltered on all fronts. Hamas perceived Israel as wary of fighting, and the residents of the Israeli communities along the Gaza border perceived the government as unable to ensure their security.
The blow dealt to Israel's deterrence was immense, and it seemed that Hamas, with its 15,000 operatives, had made a mockery of the most powerful military in the Middle East.
It is still unclear what brought the escalation to a halt on Tuesday night. It could have been an Egyptian ultimatum presented to the Palestinian Authority, or maybe it was the Palestinians' own understanding that Israel could not afford to embark on another round of futile fighting.
The fact that the Palestinians ultimately agreed to extend the truce by an additional five days serves as a positive sign, indicating that they seek a lasting cease-fire agreement, rather than another escalation on the ground. Gaza's rulers understand that Israel is nearing the end of its rope and that next time, IDF tanks will not make their way along the Strip from south to north, but rather cut across from east to west.
We must, however, remember that Hamas is nobody's fool, and that its delegates in Cairo are driving a hard bargain. Hamas' political leader Khaled Mashaal continues his attempts to torpedo the Egyptian-brokered negotiations in favor of seeing Qatar and Turkey serve as mediators.
Hamas is also driven by strategic distress: It engaged in violence because it was stifled by the Gaza blockade and starved for funds to pay its employees, and now it cannot afford to bring the fighting to its end with nothing to show for the devastation it has brought on Gaza.
Hamas' leaders also seem to believe that Israel's position in the negotiations is pliable, given the disagreements in the cabinet.
The issue of Israel's demand for the demilitarization of Gaza is one example for that. Israel has stated publicly that it would not settle for anything less than the full demilitarization of the Strip, but behind closed doors in Cairo, the demand was rephrased to mean preventing Hamas' rearmament efforts, rather than stripping it from all of its military capabilities.
However, such a move does not require an extensive cease-fire agreement. Instead, a deal with Egypt to coordinate and collaborate on counter-smuggling efforts, accompanied by clear IDF orders to counter any rearmament or tunnel construction attempt west of the Israel-Gaza Strip border, could suffice.
Demilitarization will continue to be the focus of the talks in the coming days, alongside Hamas' demands regarding a seaport, the crossings and wages' funding. The issue of the return of the remains of IDF Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin will also be discussed -- perhaps in exchange for terrorists' remains, as Israel has suggested, or in exchange for terrorists' remains and several Hamas prisoners, as Hamas demands.
This potentially complex humanitarian issue might see a compromise by which Israel will not release any Hamas operatives, who were arrested during June's Operation Brother's Keeper in Judea and Samaria, but will release Hamas operatives arrested during the Gaza campaign.
One way or another there will be a cease-fire agreement, as it serves both parties' interests. However, the negative and turbulent dynamics of the past few weeks, compounded by the intricate mediation efforts, have fostered doubts that are likely to see the military maintain its presence along the border for the foreseeable future.
International law and order
Israel's refusal to cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Council's international commission of inquiry into Operation Protective Edge was not surprising. Canadian international law professor William Schabas, who was named head of the commission, implored Jerusalem via the media to cooperate with the investigation, but his pleas did little to alleviate the justified feeling that the international community is ganging up on Israel yet again, that the commission is biased, and that its conclusions have been predetermined.
Nevertheless, the comparison by some with Iraq and Syria was also wrong. Israel cannot allow for the juxtaposition of the IDF with the Syrian army, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group (ISIS). Our point of reference should be the conduct of modern Western armies in similar situations -- the U.S. and the U.K. in Iraq and Afghanistan and NATO in former Yugoslavia, as well as the way the Europeans handle conflicts with minority groups.
The data is enlightening. The Americans, for example, killed over 5,000 people in the siege of Fallujah, and they were far less concerned about potential civilian causalities in Iraq than Israel was in Gaza.
Still, this problem is not going to go away, and if Israel is adamant on boycotting the Schabas commission it must create an alternative fact-finding mechanism. This will serve a dual purpose: We must be able to scrutinize our own actions and make sure thing were done properly, and it would also allow Israel to reduce the chances that its military officials would find themselves facing the International Criminal Courts in The Hague.
The IDF has already begun diligently collecting the material it would need to present to the commission -- each strike had legal backing and was duly documented, and each irregular incident was subject to immediate inquiry headed by a major-general.
The military's Planning Directorate has formed a special taskforce to prepare a legal-diplomatic campaign that would present damning evidence against Hamas, as well as deal with the serious legal issues the IDF is facing over the scope of casualties and devastation in Gaza.
The international community is unlikely to recognize Israeli commissions of inquiry or military inquests as a substitute to the UNHRC investigation. The solution lies in forming a truly impartial commission, headed by a renowned public figure, but that is exactly what our politicians are wary of, as they fear such a panel would be eager to end a few political careers.
The ministers would prefer to deal with a more malleable commission of inquiry -- one headed by the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee or by the state comptroller, who serves as an independent investigator by the authority vested in his office -- a panel whose findings are, for the most part, shelved and forgotten.
The only solution is to form a real commission of inquiry, one that would follow in the footsteps of the Turkel Commission, which investigated the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, and could put Operation Protective Edge in perspective.
Former Chief Justice Aharon Barak and current Chief Justice Asher Grunis have both been mentioned as potential candidates to head such an inquiry. Should one of them agree to assume the role, the commission could afford Israel the ability to provide a legal defense for those who defended it with their bodies during the Gaza campaign.
Cut from the same cloth
The demand voiced this week by the residents of the Gaza vicinity communities for a profound change in national priorities was naive, but what started a small, local initiative propelled into a mass rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Thursday night.
The south's residents are right, of course, but as we all know, being right does not pay the bills. The south's residents do not need to look far for proof; after all, for decades the residents of the northern communities had to live with the threat of rocket fire, while the residents of Tel Aviv savored their espressos in peace.
That reality has been criticized as a gross injustice, but it also allowed Israel to use the normalcy inspired by the so-called "Tel Aviv bubble" to wage war on the one hand, while fostering a booming economy on the other hand.
Hamas' fire may have placed Tel Aviv within rocket range, but the threat was never real. The Iron Dome interceptions soon turned the threat into folklore. The impending third Lebanon war, which will involve Hezbollah's long-range rockets, will surely burst the Tel Aviv bubble; but in the meantime, there is no way to compare those who have been living under rocket fire for 14 years with those whose war experience boils down to an Instagram selfie taken during a siren.
There are two ways to bridge this gap: money and attitude. The former may seem obvious, but the restitution the Finance Ministry plans to offer those living within a 40-kilometer (24-mile) range of the southern border is insufficient, and it cannot truly compensate those who serve as a buffer between Israel and Gaza.
Providing the area with true economic security will only solve half of the problem. The south's residents may demand peace and quiet but they have no illusions about the future. They are, however, demanding that the government stop trying to play them for fools.
They understand that there is no such thing as "100 percent security," but they cannot understand how Israel allowed terrorists to fire over their heads while simultaneously digging tunnels under their homes. Had the government kept them truly informed of the situation and had they been given the proper explanations, chances are they would have gritted their teeth and carried on.
Anyone who has seen IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz recently could not have missed the fatigue and frustration apparent in his face. Gantz truly believes in using force only as a last resort, and he truly believes that any military action must culminate in a diplomatic one.
This may not be the ideal profile of an Israeli chief of staff in the Middle East, but it is doubtful that the public longs for the hubris that characterized Dan Halutz, who served as chief of staff between 2005 and 2007, or for the cunning manipulations of Gantz's predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi.
Every poll, including the military's internal surveys, indicates that the public holds Gantz in high regard both professionally and personally. One could argue that every general is popular while serving his country, but it is exactly this innate support that mandates the chief of staff be vigilant.
For three and a half years Gantz has been able to watch his step, but when he finally stumbled, he tumbled in a big way. His speech last week, saying, "This has been a hot summer, but fall will soon come, the rain will wash away the dust left by the tanks, the fields will turn green, and the south will be red again -- in the positive sense of the word -- with anemones, flowers, and stability, which will remain in place for years to come," was immediately dubbed the "anemones address," and it made Gantz look somewhat detached from reality.
Gantz had meant well when he spoke of resuming normalcy in the wake of a war, but the chief of staff is expected to demonstrate prudence. When he told the residents of the Gaza vicinity communities that it was safe for them to return to their homes they believed him, and when he was proved wrong it fundamentally undermined their faith in the military.
GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman and Gaza Division Commander Brig. Gen. Mickey Edelstein were right to apologize to the residents and admit their mistake, and the IDF was wrong to try and explain away their statements.
Gantz's term in office will come to an end in six months. He would do well to hold his exit interviews in southern Israel, and while the residents would surely welcome him, he would do better to ask for their forgiveness as well.
The Flavian dynasty
Operation Protective Edge was disputed from day one. It was actually disputed before it began, when the campaign leading up to it, Operation Brother's Keeper, was still ongoing. But while every operation is riddled with disagreements -- about the ways, the means, the objectives and the strategy -- this time things seem to have gone farther than expected, as political, national, public and personal interests became inextricably tangled.
Every situation, proposal, and debate was used for propaganda purposes. Had we formed a commission of inquiry to investigate the leaks from cabinet meetings, we would have had to replace half the government; and if said investigation focused on slander, we would be holding general elections following the collapse of the government.
The military found itself in the same murky waters. Gantz used to take pride in the fact that the current General Staff was free of intrigue, but Operation Protective Edge seems to have turned the tables, even if only behind closed doors.
Some of the criticism expressed by high ranking officers was justified, while some was meant to improve certain individuals' positions. Some have climbed up tall trees and some have said things that were in stark contrast to what they themselves did when facing similar situations.
When the dust finally settles on the Gaza campaign, the IDF will have to learn and implement several lessons regarding tactical mistakes, insufficient training, and the correct prioritization of acquisitions.
Another thing, however, is sure to be overlooked -- the decision-making process during wartime. Gantz was recently quoted as saying that every plan the IDF presented to the cabinet was approved and nothing the military did not want to see happen, happened.
While he meant that in a positive sense, it actually indicates a breakdown in the process: The IDF wields too much power, and it sometimes forces the government's hand only to turn around and convince itself it was doing the government's bidding.
The National Security Council is supposed to balance the cacophony of voices and opinions heard in most cabinet meetings, but its director, Yossi Cohen, has been locking horns with too many people -- most notably the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security agency, as well as the Defense and Foreign ministries -- for the council to be effective.
The NSC was formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the botched assassination attempt on Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in 1997, to institute a reform of what had proven to be a faulty decision-making process. Seventeen years later, very little has changed: Israel still has to contend with Mashaal, and all the other familiar issues as well.