Jerusalem, Cairo and Gaza were all waiting for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arrive Tuesday night, Nov. 20, for tying up the ends of a Gaza ceasefire accord. Until then, Israel held back from its approval and the Palestinians were hurling as many deadly missiles as they could.
debkafile’s analysts say that by giving in to international pressure for a ceasefire, Israel’s leaders Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would show they have failed to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes in ending the last two wars against terrorists inconclusively and prematurely.
After those wars, Israeli civilians were again thrust into the front line against missiles. In 2006, it was the population of northern Israel; in 2012, a million people living in southern Israel are in this intolerable predicament. And after Hamas’s rockets reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for this first time in this round of Palestinian missile aggression, the next round will no doubt spill over into the central Israeli heartland as well.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and reservists were meanwhile held on the Gaza border in suspense for a ground incursion. They stood there and watched as the missiles flew over their heads to explode in their towns and villages and in Cairo, the politicians wrangled over an early ceasefire.
Operation Pillar of Cloud was kicked off Nov. 14 with the targeted assassination of one of Israel’s most implacable enemies, Ahmed Jabari, commander of the Hama military wing, amid high hopes that this time it would be different. They were heartened by the IDF’s recovery of its legendary speed, precision and inventiveness and trusted the troops to finish the job left undone by Cast Lead in 2008.
Israel’s political and military leaders fervently vowed not to stop until lost deterrence was regained, Palestinian missile and terror capabilities were degraded and the people of the south could at last lead normal lives.
Hamas and Jihad Islami were caught off-balance by the loss of the Hamas commander in chief and the highly successful air operation which followed. But instead of seizing this moment for rapid in-and-out, lightning ground incursions against well-defined targets, the three Israeli ministers paused.
The chance then passed into the hands of the terrorists who used it to send their Iran-made missiles against Greater Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At that instant, they multiplied their million targets to five.
Israel responded by calling up 75,000 IDF reserves and pouring 68,000 troops onto jumping-off stations along the Gaza border ready for an incursion.. One lesson was drawn from the 2006 conflict against the Lebanese Hizballah: Missiles cannot be stopped by air strikes.
The IDF spokesman Brig. Yoav Mordecai then started releasing upbeat televised communiqués announcing that the air offensive had so far deqraded 30, 40, 50 percent of the Palestinian missile capacity. However, as he spoke, Hamas somehow managed to expand the radius and intensity of its missile blitz until, finally Tuesday, on Day 7 of the Israeli operation, they landed two massive salvoes of 16 Grad missiles each on Beersheba’s quarter of a million inhabitants.
By then, the military had sensed that the three ministers running the operation were dithering between embarking on a ground operation to finish what they started and giving in to the mounting international pressure to accept a profitless ceasefire.
With US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton due to land in Israel Tuesday night, it was clear they had missed the boat for independent decision-making.
The Israeli public was informed by the media that the negotiations for a truce with Hamas and Jihad Islami led by Egypt were heavy going but approaching an announcement.
debkafile traces the progress of the negotiating process in Cairo, stage by stage:
1. From Friday, Nov. 16, two days into the Gaza operation, the three Israeli ministers at the helm bowed to President Barack Obama’s repeated requests every few hours for yet another 24 hours' grace for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Qatar Emir al-Thani to conclude their bid for a ceasefire.
2. Saturday, Nov. 17, the IDF units mustered on the Gaza border received orders to go in. Some notified their families by text messages. Less than an hour later, the order was cancelled and they were pulled back after another phone call was received in Jerusalem from President Obama.
3. By then, it was too late for Israel’s leaders to correct their worst strategic mistake. They had gone along with Obama’s devolution of the ceasefire brokerage effort on three avowed foes of the Jewish state: Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood; Erdogan who keeps on slamming Israel as “a terrorist state;” and the Qatari ruler, who is bankrolling Hamas’s purchases of sophisticated weapons smuggled out of Libya.
The “truce brokers” prevented Israel from taking its place at the table. The Israeli delegation sent to Cairo was confined to exchanges though Egyptian intelligence officers, while at the same time forced to accept Hamas and Jihad Islami as negotiating partners.
4. When they saw tens of thousands of IDF reservists standing idle on the Gaza border, Hamas and Jihad Islami strategists concluded that, while they may have lost the opening round of the war, they had gained enough momentum to make up for it in the days that followed.
5. Building up their stake for the endgame, the two terrorist organizations intensified their missile blitz on Israel and raised their terms for a ceasefire. Meanwhile, international pressure from Western leaders on Jerusalem to step back from a ground operation was crushing.
By Tuesday, Netanyahu was willing to assure visiting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle: “I would prefer this to end with a diplomatic solution. I hope we can achieve one, but if not, we are fully entitled to defend ourselves by other means and we shall use them.”
The Prime minister had also come around to accepting Egypt’s role in monitoring and managing the proposed ceasefire and providing guarantees for its implementation.
Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman gave there consent to this arrangement in the face of strong objections from top military commanders and intelligence pros. The latter argued that, even with the best will in the world, the Muslim Brotherhood rulers of Egypt were not up to the task.
6. The clincher was the news that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had left the Obama party touring the Far East and was on her way to Jerusalem and Cairo Tuesday night to tie up the last ends of an accord to stop the fighting in Gaza.
The issue had acquired ramifications which transcend the embattled Palestinian enclave: For Washington, Morsi’s acceptance of a key role in the execution of the truce would signify that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had after all chosen to join the US-Israel orbit in preference to the radical Middle East camp – albeit without fanfare for fear of embarrassment at home and in the inter-Arab arena.
The Obama administration expects Israel to go along with this perception.
debkafile’s sources report that this is a dangerous illusion because, in the first place, it does not truly represent the intentions or orientation of the Egyptian president or the Muslim Brotherhood. In the second, it flies in the face of ten years of experience.
Even when Hosni Mubarak, a far more pro-Western figure, ruled Egypt, Cairo never upheld a single security accord negotiated with Israel for the Gaza Strip or Sinai and sponsored by Washington. Why would the Muslim Brothers behave any differently?
But even if Cairo does take charge of the ceasefire deal, it would put Israel in the invidious position of having to run to the Egyptians to complain about every Hamas violation, helpless to do anything about the smuggling into the Gaza Strip of fresh and better munitions with more powerful multiple warheads, or stop the groundwork being laid for the next Palestinian blitz.
The boast by government sources that the first missile fired from Gaza in violation of the truce would be met with an extra-powerful response unfortunately recalls the pledge of a former prime minister Ariel Sharon. After he disengaged Israel from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and pulled out every last civilian and soldier, Sharon declard that the first bullet fired from the Gaza Strip would be met with a powerful response.
Since then, the bullet has evolved into a missile… and is still growing.