By SHLOMO CESANA, ISRAEL HAYOM—
Should Hamas violate the terms of the cease-fire, Israel is prepared to renew its assault in Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday.
At a meeting with Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino at national police headquarters, Netanyahu said he was aware that some citizens expected Israel to act more forcefully. “We always choose, as we did in this operation, when and how to take action, as well as against whom we act. We are giving the cease-fire a chance now. This is the correct move at the moment for Israel, but we are also ready for the possibility that the cease-fire will not be honored,” he said.
Although Operation Pillar of Defense ended on Wednesday night and a cease-fire agreement with Hamas has been enforced since then by both sides, the terms of the agreement have not been made public and it is still unclear why the government did not order the Israel Defense Forces to launch a ground assault during the operation.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman commented on those matters on Thursday, saying, “We cannot ignore requests by the U.S. president and EU heads of state, who formed an international coalition that supported Israel.”
Lieberman’s remarks may have been based on a statement by U.S. President Barack Obama several days ago. “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes,” Obama said at a news conference in Bangkok.
Addressing the possibility of an Israel Defense Forces ground assault, Obama said “If this can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that is preferable. That’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It’s also not preferable for Israelis because if Israeli troops are in Gaza they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”
A senior diplomatic official claimed on Thursday that Netanyahu avoided a ground assault due to an Egyptian threat to cancel the peace treaty with Israel. According to the official, Egypt warned Netanyahu of that consequence via Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, who served as chief Israeli cease-fire negotiator in Cairo.
Although former U.S. special envoy Sen. George Mitchell confirmed that possibility, Lieberman said, “That is really inaccurate, to say the least. They did not threaten us and that was never a consideration.”
Whether the Egyptians threatened to cancel the treaty or not, senior politicians made numerous public appearances to explain why the government’s decision to accept a cease-fire was the best possible decision for Israel.
Netanyahu praised the accomplishments of the operation and said Hamas and other terrorist groups suffered a severe blow. “Many terrorist leaders were killed and we destroyed thousands of rockets aimed at the south, as well as almost all of those aimed at the center,” he said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “If the rocket fire is renewed and they do not honor their promises, we will hit them extremely hard. We will not tolerate another round of fighting every few weeks.”
Barak said he is aware that a majority of Israelis wanted the IDF to launch a ground assault, but, he said, “We cannot always carry out what the Israeli public wants in these matters. The leadership must make the decisions. The leadership has all the means at its disposal to see the big picture and must act with the necessary responsibility and seriousness. The time is not right for us to go in and conquer Gaza. We may though reach that point at another time.”
Lieberman echoed Barak’s remarks, saying “It is clear that most people supported a continuation of the operation. But I am proud of the leaders who were able to make decisions that negated the will of those who elected them. Power does not always involve the ability to strike, but also to know when to exercise self-restraint. The operation in Gaza is over for now, but has not necessarily ended in the long run. I am sure that under the circumstances, we made the best decision we could have made. We cannot share all of our considerations with the public.”
A senior diplomatic official said on Thursday that diplomatically “Israel gained valuable legitimacy to take further military action in the future if necessary.” According to the official, a “broad international coalition supported Israel’s right to act in Gaza and condemned the rocket fire into Israel.” There was no similar condemnation of Israel by the U.N. and the Security Council, despite attempts by Arab countries to bring that about, the official noted.
“Our relationship with the U.S. administration was strengthened. Israel and Egypt, with its new leadership, worked together successfully to keep the conflict under control and achieve the desired results,” the official said.
IDF commanders also had an optimistic view of how the operation ended. Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen Benny Gantz toured the south on Thursday and said, “All the aims of the operation were achieved. The IDF dealt a strong, even fatal blow to the strategic capabilities of terrorist groups in Gaza.”
In response to a question about how long he thought the cease-fire would hold, Gantz said “I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but the results will prove themselves when the dust clears.”
The cease-fire was maintained on Thursday and both sides agreed that if the calm continues until Saturday night, they will meet indirectly for talks focused on a more permanent arrangement to be sponsored by Egypt and the U.S.