The security cabinet met late on Tuesday night to determine the next steps in Operation Protective Edge, at the end of a topsy-turvy day that started with the prospect of a cease-fire and ended with dozens of Hamas rockets hitting Israel and intense retaliatory attacks on the Gaza Strip.
Before convening the security cabinet, which some 12 hours earlier had approved a cease-fire brokered by Egypt that Hamas never accepted, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel would answer Hamas’s rejection of a truce with stepped-up attacks.
“If there is no cease-fire, our answer is fire,” Netanyahu said, adding that Hamas chose to continue the battle and “will pay the price for that decision.”
Earlier in the day, the prime minister recommended to the security cabinet that it accept a relatively vague Egyptian proposal that called for a 48-hour cease-fire, to be followed in Cairo by the Egyptian government acting as the middleman in negotiations between Israel and Hamas to secure a longer-term agreement.
Israel accepted the proposal for a cease-fire to begin at 9 a.m., but Hamas did not and continued raining rockets down on Israeli cities and towns. Six hours later, at 3 in the afternoon, Israel resumed military action.
Netanyahu did not, however, rule out in his comments on Tuesday night the possibility that Israel would again hold its fire if Hamas decided to do the same.
Speaking in Tel Aviv, where he has held the bulk of the security cabinet meetings and high level security deliberations during the current crisis, Netanyahu said that there are many fronts in this particular battle: the military one, diplomatic one, and the home front.
“We are working in parallel on all these fronts with deliberation, consideration and experience to create the maximum freedom of action for Israel and the IDF,” he said.
He said it would have been preferable to solve the issue through diplomatic means, which is why Israel accepted the Egyptian proposal. “But Hamas is not giving us a choice, other than to expand and intensify the campaign against it.”
The campaign will continue until Israel’s goals are achieved: restoring quiet and significantly degrading the capabilities of the terrorist organizations operating from Gaza, the prime minister said.
Alluding to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s veiled criticism at a press conference earlier in the day of the government’s “hesitancy” and unwillingness to go “all the way” in Gaza, Netanyahu said these are moments when decisions need to be taken calmly and not in a rash or demonstrative manner.
“I am determined to do the right thing, and I know that you rely on me and on us to ignore the background noise and focus on the main thing: to protect your security and your lives,” Netanyahu said in a statement to the nation.
“We will do everything, everything, to ensure that quiet returns to Israel.”
Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) were the two members of the security cabinet who voted against the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire. In addition to Netanyahu, the ministers who voted for the proposal were Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan from the Likud, Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beytenu).
Liberman did not suffice by voting against the proposal, but called a press conference in the afternoon in the Knesset – even after the IDF restarted its military campaign – in which, without mentioning him directly by name, he leveled sharp criticism at Netanyahu.
“We need to bring an end to the campaign by having the IDF control all of the Gaza Strip,” Liberman said. “All diplomatic efforts are hurting [us] right now.” He slammed the decision to agree to a cease-fire, saying, “This is only preparation for the next round. It is clear that in every cease-fire Hamas produces more rockets and will continue to smuggle in raw materials and explosives.” Then, in an apparent reference to Netanyahu, he said, “You can’t agonize, go back and forth, hesitate. All hesitation works against us. We must radiate determination to follow through. There is no other alternative.”
Diplomatic officials said that when the security cabinet approved the Egyptian proposal in the morning, there was a feeling that Hamas might not accept it. “The ministers were very serious about it,” one official stressed, denying that Israel had accepted it thinking Hamas would not, in the hope of gaining greater international legitimacy for Operation Protective Edge.
Nevertheless, diplomatic officials acknowledged that the decision to halt the operation and give a chance for a cease-fire would give Israel more legitimacy to carry on with the operation.
Along with accepting the cease-fire proposal, the security cabinet decided to launch an international campaign aimed at demilitarizing Gaza: dismantling Hamas’s rocket stockpiles and the labyrinth of its weapons-smuggling tunnels.
One of the reasons, according to diplomatic officials, that Hamas refused the cease-fire was because it did not yield the terrorist regime any achievements from the current violence. For example, there was no Israeli agreement to release Hamas members freed in the Gilad Schalit exchange, but re-arrested in the West Bank following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers last month.
There was also no commitment, as Hamas was demanding, regarding opening the border crossings to the Gaza Strip.
Some three hours after Israel accepted the cease-fire proposal, Netanyahu met with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and spoke of the need to demilitarize Gaza, a theme he is increasingly mentioning.
He said Israel “agreed to the Egyptian proposal in order to give an opportunity for the demilitarization of the Strip – from missiles, from rockets, and from tunnels – through diplomatic means.”
Steinmeier expressed strong support for Israel, saying, “Under international law, as well as politically and morally, Israel has the right to protect its population against rocket attacks.”
In an indication of the credit that agreeing to a cease-fire had earned Netanyahu, Steinmeier said he welcomes Israel’s acceptance of the proposal and “urges all the leaders in Gaza in the strongest possible terms to respect the proposed cease-fire, also in the interests of the people living in the Gaza Strip.”