Netanyahu's endgame in Gaza: It's all political

After bombing 250 targets overnight in the tiny Gaza Strip, Israel has now started activating its army reserves, with 16,000 soldiers reporting for duty.

Despite the call-up, though, I still don't think Benjamin Netanyahu wants a ground invasion of Gaza.

I asked a few Israeli contacts last night to explain the logic behind this attack — how does this end? What is Netanyahu's military objective? To paraphrase their unanimous answer, which focused on political rather than military objectives:

Netanyahu wants to declare victory after a quick military campaign. He wants to address the Israeli public over the next few days and say, we killed the Hamas leader who kidnapped our soldier, Gilad Shalit; we seriously degraded Hamas' ability to strike at Tel Aviv; and we restored deterrence in the Gaza Strip. (Nevermind that, as Gershon Baskin points out, Ahmed Jaabari was Israel's best chance for a long-term cease-fire with Gaza.)

Once it's over, Netanyahu gets to play the victorious wartime prime minister. He undermines the center-left parties, which have rallied behind the attack, and he overshadows the possible re-emergence of Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert.

And it helps Netanyahu rebut the argument, from Olmert and others, that he's damaged Israel's relationship with the West. See? Barack Obama called me immediately to offer his support. There's no crisis with America.

What Netanyahu doesn't want is a lengthy ground invasion. The army risks getting bogged down, and it becomes much harder to give that victory speech — think about the endless debate over whether Cast Lead was a failure because Olmert didn't achieve his stated goal of stopping Hamas from launching rockets at Israel.

Netanyahu wants to contrast his war with Cast Lead — not repeat it.

Obviously this is a gamble; if the rocket fire from Gaza does enough damage, Netanyahu will face public pressure to escalate. But as it stands right now I genuinely don't think he wants to send in ground troops.