Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave interviews to the country’s three television networks over the weekend defending the Gaza operation, and saying that driving Hamas from power has not been removed from the agenda.
“I never removed the goal of toppling Hamas, and I am not doing that now,” Netanyahu told Channel 2, saying, however, that Israel faces numerous other security challenges.
“When I look around and see al-Qaida on the fence [the border with Syria], ISIS [Islamic State] moving toward Jordan and already in Lebanon, with Hezbollah there already, supported by Iran, I defined the goal in the cabinet of delivering a hard blow to Hamas, and we did that.”
Following Operation Cast Lead in 2009 Netanyahu, during the election campaign at the time, said the IDF should have been allowed to continue and topple Hamas.
Asked about this in the interview, he said that he made those comments after – not during – the military campaign, as some of his cabinet ministers did this time.
“I can not rule out the occupation of Gaza,” he said. “I don’t know if we will get to that. I thought the best thing is to crush them. It might be that they [Hamas] are still there, but they are crushed, isolated and unable to smuggle in arms. I think that creates a chance for prolonged quiet, but if not, I won’t bear a drizzle of rockets.”
Addressing criticism that he withdrew the ground forces from Gaza before the IDF delivered a knock-out blow to Hamas, the prime minister said that he directed the ground incursion in order to deal with the threat posed by the terrorist tunnels.
“But the minute that was dealt with, we took them [the troops] out, because I did not want the killing or kidnapping of our soldiers.”
There was no reason to endanger the troops if Israel could “crush” Hamas from the air, Netanyahu said.
“Hamas was surprised by the strength of our response,” he said. “They didn’t expect a blow like this. They did not expect this demonstration of fortitude. They came up against both an Iron Dome and an iron society.”
He said it would have been preferable had the cabinet demonstrated the same sort of fortitude, and criticized some of his ministers for not demonstrating collective responsibility.
Collective responsibility means “you say whatever you want inside [the cabinet meetings], but once a decision is taken you back it – certainly during a time of war.”
With that, he said that he was not interested in going to elections at this time. In a Channel 1 interview he said he did, however, intend to run for a fourth term.
In the Channel 2 interview, Netanyahu related to his controversial decision not to bring the final cease-fire to a vote in the security cabinet, saying in reference to the four ministers (in the eight-member body) who would have likely voted against it – Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan – that they were secretly pleased that they did not have to vote on the issue.
Netanyahu said he saved the ministers the “dilemma of opposing a proposal whereby Hamas gave up all its demands,” which he enumerated as a seaport, an airport, Turkish mediation and the release of prisoners freed in the Gilad Schalit deal but rearrested over the summer.
He stressed that the cabinet had previously authorized him and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to make a decision regarding accepting a cease-fire.
Netanyahu said that he agreed with a remark made last week by his wife, Sara, that former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza was to blame for the current situation.
“I said from the beginning [regarding disengagement] that there will be rocket fire on Israeli cities, and what I said materialized,” Netanyahu said. “At least now there is a greater understanding of my stubbornness about the need for the demilitarization of Judea and Samaria.”
Regarding comments he made over the past few weeks about a new diplomatic horizon, Netanyahu said that a new reality has been created in the region where there is “not a small number of states who see the threats around us, as threats to them as well, and as a result do not see Israel as an enemy, but as a potential partner.”
He cautioned, however, that it still needed to be determined whether this partnership against the threats would also lead to “a partnership regarding opportunities.”
Regarding whether he viewed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a peace partner, the prime minister repeated what he has been saying for months, that Abbas needed to chose: Either Hamas or peace. Israel had no problem with the prospect of the PA moving into the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu said, its concern was that Hamas would move into Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu did not answer directly when asked about whether as a result of the Gaza operation there would be a rise in taxes, saying unequivocally, however, that the defense budget needed to be increased.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni warned of an oncoming “diplomatic intifada,” speaking during an interview on Channel 2’s Meet the Press, and urged the prime minister to begin diplomatic negotiations.
“Either we conduct negotiations and the world will be with us, or we will be isolated and continue to say we will not speak to Hamas, even as we do an agreement with Hamas,” she said.
Livni said that Abbas “stood like a wall and prevented an intifada in Judea and Samaria, and the government of Israel knows this. We need to take advantage of the opportunity and talk with those who accept agreements and distance themselves from violence – like the Palestinian unity government.”
Netanyahu is firmly opposed to negotiations with the PA unity government because it is backed by Hamas.
“It is possible to change the reality in Gaza,” Livni said. “Anyone who does not negotiate is telling the residents of the South that it is impossible to change the situation. My words are also directed toward the prime minister.”