The fact that, after six weeks of the Gaza war, Israel has no victory to show for it and Hamas can still fire 100-150 rockets a day, has sparked a ministerial mutiny against the way the war is managed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. The replies offered by the two war planners in a televised press conference Wednesday night, Aug. 20, failed to satisfy their critics. A radio interview with one of those critics, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, the next morning, showed that the opposition to Netanyahu was snowballing beyond the vocal right-wing ministers Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett. It had been joined by pro-diplomacy Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, head of Hatnua, as well as cabinet members from the prime minister’s own Likud.
The hard questions they are asking includes another: Why engage in diplomacy with the Hamas terrorist group in the first place, when it is obvious that Israel will have to make major concessions that would further strengthen Hamas’ grip on the Gaza Strip. The IDF should be allowed to finish Hamas off and rid Gaza of a terrorist regime which abuses its people and menaces Israel.
Netanyahu answered his opponents by giving he war a new direction, which he termed “hammering versus attrition” – his answer to the war of attrition launched by Hamas.
In other words, the prime minister has once again opted for dragging the Gaza war into a new phase rather than heading straight for a clear-cut victory.
The IDF embarked on this new phase Tuesday night, Aug. 19, shortly after Hamas resumed rocket attacks on Israel in violation of a 24-hour ceasefire, and Israeli negotiators quit Cairo for an indefinite absence.
Using pinpointed military intelligence, Israeli bombers struck a building in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, where Muhammed Deif, Hamas’ military chief, had hidden his family.
Netanyahu and Ya’alon counted on breaking the news of Deif’s death as a bombshell at their Wednesday press conference. But this was not to be. Deif’s wife and infant son died. Biut Hamas wrapped so many layers of secrecy and disinformation around the incident, that no one can tell whether its military chief came out of the massive bombardment alive or is dead.
Deprived of this trump card, the prime minister lost no time in striking again.
Thursday morning, the Israel air force, acting on precise intelligence, leveled a four-storey house in the Tel Sultan neighborhood of Rafah, killing three leading lights of Hamas’ southern command:
Ra’ad al-Atar (Abu Ayman), commander of the Rafah Brigade, Mohammed Abu Shamala (Abu Khalil), commander of the Southern Brigade; and Mohammed Barhoum. All three were deeply engaged in developing Hamas’ capabilities, including digging tunnels to Israel and smuggling weapons into Gaza.
Netanyahu’s “hammering” campaign had begun to unfold as the singling out of Hamas military leaders and commanders for assassination.
It is hard to say whether they would have been left alone if the Deif hit had succeeded.
It stands to reason that the IDF could have hit the three southern commanders back in the last week of July, during its punitive operation for the killing of Lt. Hadar Goldin by Hamas and its abduction of his remains.
But activating a hit list against Hamas chiefs in the third week of August takes the war in a direction which Netanyahu and Ya’alon refused to countenance until now – expansion.
It also closes off their preferred solution of the conflict – a diplomatic accord based on the Egyptian initiative which would inevitably lead to the new political horizon, which the prime minister promised Wednesday was awaiting Israel.
Netanyahu also denounced the ministers who inappropriately voice their objections to government policy in the middle of a war.
Gideon Sa’ar rejected this complaint. He also stressed that the Cairo negotiations must not be revived, because the only winner from the process would be Hamas, which would use its ill-gotten gains to beat the rival Fatah led by Mahmoud Abbas into submission.
“Hamas must be defeated for Israel to gain a new political horizon,” he said. “And the cabinet is against negotiating terms with a Palestinian terrorist organization.”
If the interior minister has got it right, Netanyahu and Ya’alon no longer have a majority for the way they are running the war in the security-political cabinet - and possibly even in the full cabinet too.