On Monday 5 January, Israel's relatively easy war suddenly became a nasty entanglement. Five soldiers were killed and 30 were wounded by "friendly fire", an inevitable phenomenon in battles inside urban areas. The suave expressions have been wiped off the faces of some of the television commentators here, but most Israelis still believe that the Israel Defence Forces are on their way to victory, avenging the humiliation of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. I choose the word "avenging" with care. Israel's policy is driven not only by an outburst of emotional machismo, but also a calculated strategy, aimed at restoring the IDF's credibility. Psychologically the Israeli people (not only their leaders) badly need a total victory over the hated and widely demonised Hamas regime in Gaza, and remorse over the plight of the civilians is confined to small enlightened circles, devoid of any real influence among the general public.
The war in Gaza is unequivocally supported by the extreme right: the settlers and their backers inside Israel proper. Seasoned observers here take this for granted. Right-wing Zionists would support any war against Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular. But the "confron tational right" (extreme pro-settler parties and some Likud politicians) was not in a position to launch the new war in Gaza. Its supporters merely assumed their usual role as its cheerleaders.
The architects of the atrocious, arguably criminal, bombing of Gaza and the ensuing invasion were the leaders of the nationalistic centre - Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of Labour, respectively Israel's foreign minister and minister of defence. Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition and the candidate certain to win the elections on 10 February, has, in his unique style, fluctuated between confrontational public statements and international-statesman-like pretensions.
Netanyahu harnessed himself to the government propaganda machine, achieving at a stroke three important aims: proving his loyalty to the elected government; endearing himself to the incoming regime in the US (which is looking for a more moderate stance from Israel); and fulfilling his role as leader of the right wing within the nationalistic centre. The bulk of the all-important Israeli middle class supports the nationalistic centre; the general election will only determine the relative strength of its components.
This façade of unity is very fragile, however, and the customary recriminations will ensue as soon as the first real setback in the campaign is made public. There is an old mechanism at work here, which characterises most of our wars. A general enthusiasm at the outset is followed by an orgy of self-righteousness and vilification of our enemies. The next stage is self-pity, combined with inevitable remorse over our own crimes against the enemy. The last phase is prolonged breast-beating, culminating in an investigation into the mishandling of the campaign.
The role of the Israeli media in this predictable situation is truly lamentable, many journalists in the national press and broadcast media acting as semi-official spokesmen for the government's war machine. The civilian casualties in Gaza have been consistently described as a natural result of collateral damage. Many Israelis justify the carnage by explaining that the victims had elected a Hamas government of their own free will.
Hamas cannot be exonerated from its share of responsibility for the crisis, nor can Israel be expected to tolerate the constant shelling of its citizens in the south. But Israel, like its American patrons, has decided to ignore the results of the Palestinian Authority elections in January 2006, and snub the mediators. This crisis is the direct result of a decision by Israel's nationalistic-centre politicians, aided and abetted by the Bush administration, to seek a confrontation with Islam.
Are there viable alternatives to Israel's strategy in Gaza? They certainly exist: Israel could recognise the Hamas government, negotiate with its leaders, lift the siege on Gaza and stop its anti-Muslim propaganda. But the national consensus in Israel, led by the three major parties, prevents them from being even seriously debated.
Nevertheless, Hamas is a reality, and wiping it out is not only immoral, but impossible. The likelihood is that hostilities will end soon, without a complete victory for any party. The Israeli and Palestinian peoples will pay the price - though the latter are destined to suffer far more.
In the long term, only Barack Obama can bring about a new regional atmosphere and mastermind creative and daring initiatives. Indeed, 20 January has never seemed so far away.
Haim Baram is a writer based in Jerusalem and was a founding member of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace