Israel’s incremental operational plan for the Gaza operation, beginning with an aerial campaign and slowly increasing in intensity, was a mistake, the former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence directorate said Sunday.

Maj. Gen. (ret) Amos Yadlin said that there are merits in the approach adopted by the government, in that it preserves Israeli legitimacy and it allows multiple exit points for de-escalation, but “in hindsight, this was not the right strategy.”

A sharp, forceful move at the onset, exerting immediate pressure on the military wing of Hamas, he said in a conference call, would have been “a much smarter” option.

The conflict, which is increasingly taking on the proportions of a full-fledged war, is in its 20th day. Thus far, 43 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the ground operation on July 17 and over 1,000 people in Gaza have been killed, according to Palestinian sources, since the beginning of the aerial offensive on July 8. Several attempts at nailing down a ceasefire agreement have failed, as have the brief humanitarian windows granted by Israel to residents of the Gaza Strip.

Yadlin, today the head of the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, said that one reason for the repeated failures is that the decision maker in Hamas today is the military wing, as run by Muhammad Deif, with “no real communication” between Deif and the Qatar-based political chief Khaled Mashaal.

“Mashaal is trying to guess what Muhammad Deif wants and to fly as his wingman,” Yadlin said. “This is the main problem.”

Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, left, congratulates Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood party's leader for winning the biggest number of seats in parliamentary elections in Cairo, January 21, 2012 (photo credit: AP)

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal (left), congratulates Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood party’s leader, for winning the biggest number of seats in parliamentary elections in Cairo, January 21, 2012. (photo credit: AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial goals, Yadlin said, were “very modest” at the onset of the operation — quiet in exchange for quiet, weakening of Hamas, and reestablishing deterrence. “If a ceasefire is declared tonight, he basically has achieved those goals.”

The subsequent goal of removing the tunnel threat will be achieved within the coming days, he added. But if the demilitarization of Hamas is one of the operation’s goals — and Netanyahu has mentioned it as a possible long-term objective — then “we are far, far away,” he said.

In essence, he said, asking Hamas to demilitarize entirely “is like asking a priest to convert to Judaism” — it runs counter to the organization’s ideology and clashes with the core of what it holds sacred.

Instead, he suggested a middle ground. The ground operation, he said, needs to be ramped up so that the core of Hamas’s military wing is deeply weakened and the ceasefire that would then ensue prevents the organization from rebuilding its strength. “If they want to stay with their Kalashnikovs, that’s fine,” he said. But the organization had to be stripped fully of its long-range rockets and tunnels.

Finally, Yadlin, who served as head of Military Intelligence from 2006 to 2010, dismissed the notion that the cross-border tunnels from Gaza to Israel represent an intelligence failure. The Israeli intelligence community “knew very well” of the existence of the tunnels, he said.

A map of attack tunnels in Gaza provided by the IDF

A map of attack tunnels in Gaza provided by the IDF

If there was a failure, he said, it was a policy failure, in that Israel did not opt to preemptively thwart the tunnel threat. Urging observers not to overstate the threat, he said that the Scud missiles and the chemical weapons in Syria, along with some of Hezbollah’s capabilities, represent a far greater threat to the state of Israel than the tunnels.

Preemptive action, he added, would have cast Israel as an aggressor and therefore it made sense to wait for an enemy mistake “and then knock out his capability.”