Israeli leaders re-examine Gaza ground operation under strong Obama pressure
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman conferred urgently Sunday night, Nov. 18 – Day 5 of the Gaza offensive – on how to respond to US President Barack Obama’s insistent demand that they delay a major IDF ground operation in the Gaza Strip.
debkafile’s sources disclose that when Obama spoke to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi Friday, Nov. 16 – after receiving an update from Netanyahu – he gave him a 48-hour window for talking Hamas around to a ceasefire.
Not only has the Egyptian president failed in this task, his bid made matters worse: Hamas understood the US president was leaning hard on Israel to refrain from sending troops into the Gaza Strip and took advantage of the respite to redouble its missile barrage on a dozen Israeli locations in the last three days, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Following his talks with Morsi and Netanyahu, Obama referred in Bangkok Sunday to “the next 24, 36, 48 hours as crucial; Israel responded to his request to send two senior envoys to Cairo – a high-ranking military officer and an intelligence official – take part in the ceasefire negotiations.
However, Hamas turned down all the truce proposals on the table, leaving Israel with three options:
1. To delay the ground action until Wednesday although it was poised to go forward Sunday night – even though the US president may be expected to stand by his objections then too;
2. To go ahead and launch the ground stage of the military offensive over those objections; or
3. To conduct a series of ground sorties inside the Gaza Strip to test the ground there without delay.
debkafile reported earlier Sunday:
“We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians," said President Barack Obama Sunday, Nov. 18 in Bangkok. "And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Speaking at a joint conference with Thai Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the US president said, “there is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” If that can be stopped “without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable, not just for the people of Gaza. It’s preferable for the Israelis because if Israeli troops are in Gaza they are much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”
He went on to say after talking to would-mediators in Cairo, “if we’re serious about wanting to resolve this situation and create a genuine peace process, it starts with no more missiles being fired into Israel’s territory and that then gives us the space to try and deal with these long-standing conflicts that exist.”
“We’re going to have to see what kind of progress we can make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours, but what I’ve said to [Egyptian] President Morsi and [Turkish] Prime Minister Erdogan is that those who champion the cause of the Palestinians should recognize that if we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza than the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future.”
The US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro joined Defense Minister Ehud Barak on a visit to an Iron Dome battery Sunday shortly before he flies out to brief the White House on the Gaza crisis.
Barak thanked President Obama and all those Americans who past and present contributed to the financing and development of the Iron Dome missile interception system. This defensive weapon has intercepted a total of 300 incoming Palestinian missiles, nearly 90 percent of the rockets threatening Israeli towns, he said. Its performance “made it possible for us to prepare the next stages of Operation Pillar of Cloud which may be even tougher. There is no better symbol of the close US-Israeli military cooperation.
debkafile reported earlier Sunday: Israeli air and naval forces launched heavy assaults in Gaza before dawn Sunday, Nov. 18 – Day 5 of the IDF’s Gaza operation – after daylong bargaining Saturday among Washington, Jerusalem, Cairo and Gaza, failed to produce an Israel-Hamas truce accord. When Egyptian and Turkish middlemen suggested a ceasefire was close, Israel accused them of pushing Hamas’s terms which were fashioned to present the Palestinian radicals as the victor in the contest. The trio leading the Israeli war, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, countered by intensifying the IDF’s Gaza offensive – though not as yet sending ground troops in.
A Western source said it would take some days to determine if a ceasefire was feasible.
Egyptian intelligence meanwhile smuggled Hamas Prime Minister Islmail Haniyeh out of Gaza and over to El Arish in northern Sinai in the convoy of visiting Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafiq Abdessalem when he departed Gaza Saturday, debkafile reports.
Friday night, Israel bombers struck government headquarters in Gaza City.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi decided that Haniyeh must be continuously available at the end of a phone to lead the Hamas side in the ceasefire negotiations. This was not possible so long as the Hamas prime minister remained in Gaza. All of Hamas leaders have gone to ground for fear of targeted assassination by Israel. They have switched off their phones and electronic communications to avoid giving away their locations to Israeli surveillance. Haniyeh was even afraid to communicate with Cairo through the Egyptian military mission in Gaza.
In these circumstances, Morsi and Erdogan’s were prevented from get their ceasefire mediation bid off the ground. Moving Haniyeh to El Arish put a Hamas negotiator in place to lead the give-and-take for a truce. Our sources have not discovered if he is still there or has moved back to Gaza.
The Turkish prime minister brought a secret passenger in the plane bringing him to Cairo Saturday. He is Saleh Aruri, formerly of the Hamas military wing. Aruri had spent 15 years in an Israeli prison for terrorism and murder until he was released on Oct. 18, 2011 in the prisoner exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit on condition he went into exile.
Turkey granted him asylum and its intelligence agency MIT gave him free rein to set up an operational command in Istanbul for Hamas terrorist networks on the West Bank.
On arrival in Cairo, the Turkish prime minister put Aruri in charge of the contacts with Haniyeh.
At a news conference in Cairo Saturday night, the Egyptian president and Turkish prime minister reported “some indications that there could be a ceasefire soon” although “there were still no guarantees.”
The guarantees issue has become a pivotal bargaining point.
Israel, backed by the United States, insists that a ceasefire be signed between the US, Egypt, Turkey and Israel, and exclude Hamas, which would be bound by a separate agreement with Cairo.
Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman are asking the United States to act as guarantor for a ceasefire. Erdogan has countered by inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to join US President Barack Obama as victor.
Hamas has rejected all of Israel's terms.
During the night, Israel denied reports circulating in Cairo that an Israeli negotiator was heading for the Egyptian capital to get down to the specifics of an emerging truce deal. The three Israeli war leaders decided not to fall into the trap laid by Morsi and Erdogan. Instead, they told the IDF to press ahead with the operation until its objectives were attained – hence the launching of a fresh air and sea assault before daybreak Sunday.
OC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Tal Rousso defined those objectives to reporters Saturday night as “eliminating the war arsenals of Hamas and terrorist organizations and restoring peace and normality to the population of southern Israel.”
The ground operation is meanwhile delayed, in accordance with Netanyahu’s promise to President Obama in their conversation early Saturday, that a full-scale ground invasion would not go forward so long as there was a chance of a ceasefire – unless there was escalation from Hamas or a strike that caused significant casualties.
A western source in Cairo familiar with the truce negotiations reported that Obama has not yet decided whether he wants to be directly involved in any ceasefire deal, which in any case has not reached the concluding stage. “The cake dough is still being kneaded and not yet ready to for the oven,” he said.