Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday night indicated he was not sure whether an Israeli air strike had killed Hamas terror chief Muhammad Deif, but stressed that terror chiefs were a legitimate and prime target for Israel.
At a press conference together with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu also went to considerable lengths to describe Hamas as part of a network of Islamist terror groups including Islamic State, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, in a clear effort to muster greater international support for Israel’s ongoing battle against Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
He also leveled heavy criticism at cabinet colleagues who have publicly criticized the government’s handling of Operation Protective Edge, telling them to give public support to the government, and leave aside their “empty slogans.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, in a Hamas TV interview earlier Wednesday had described Deif as “the dead man” in an apparent slip of the tongue. Later a spokesman for the Hamas military wing vowed that Deif, whose wife and son were killed in an overnight Israeli air strike, would lead the army that liberated Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa.
Netanyahu was asked flat out about Deif’s fate. “The commanders of terror organizations are a legitimate target, of the highest priority… No one is immune,” he said. Asked again, he refused to elaborate.
Speaking of Hamas in general, he said Gaza’s Islamist terror leadership and ISIS “are branches of the same tree.” He noted that “the entire world has been shocked by the atrocities of ISIS. You saw the beheading of an American journalist, (James) Foley. It shows you the barbarism, the savagery of these people.
“Well we face the same savagery,” Netanyahu went on. “The people who wantonly rocket our cities and want to conduct mass killings. And when they can, they murder children, teenagers, shoot them in the head. Throw people from the sixth floor — their own people — and use their people as human shields.”
In short, groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, he said, “are the enemies of peace. They are the enemies of Israel. They are the enemies of all civilized countries. And I believe they are the enemies of the Palestinians themselves.”
Netanyahu also used the press conference to take aim at unnamed cabinet ministers with their public criticisms, “unrealistic” positions, and “empty slogans.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett have both repeatedly urged that Hamas be smashed in a dramatic military offensive, while Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid have pushed for a greater emphasis on a role for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the international community in resolving conflict. Netanyahu named none of them, but appeared to be referring to them all.
He urged ministers to do what he said he did in the past, as opposition leader or cabinet minister: “Give support and speak less.”
Ya’alon also weighed in on the issue, slamming ministers’ unacceptable public criticism “while we are burying our dead.”
The PM said ministers have had every opportunity to speak at 27 cabinet meetings since the start of the operation, but should not broadcast criticism in public.
Answering questions, the prime minister said diplomatic relations with the US are strong, despite reports to the contrary. Asked if there’s a crisis, he replied: “No, truly not.”
He said he had “a very good conversation” with Secretary of State John Kerry Wednesday, and had spoken with President Barack Obama four times during the conflict.
Netanyahu praised the Obama administration for its support, which he said was firmer than the backing Israel received from a different US administration during the 2002 Defensive Shield campaign against Hamas in the West Bank. The US backs Israel’s demand for a demilitarized Gaza, he noted.
Netanyahu said he aimed to achieve a “new political horizon for the state of Israel” after the battle against Hamas. And, speaking of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “I look forward to restarting peace negotiations with a Palestinian government committed to peace with Israel, to the end of terror” and to the recognition of previous agreements — presumably not a joint Fatah-Hamas government.
Netanyahu said the Hamas threat underlined his insistence on a demilitarized West Bank — something he said he has stressed to the US. Otherwise, he asked, “who is going to prevent them manufacturing rockets in Nablus?”
Islamic State is only half as strong as Hamas, he said, but “look at what it can do” in terms of terrorism. “This was not understood” previously.
Two things have therefore changed in recent weeks, he said: “It is much easier for us to explain our security considerations.” And “there is change in the regional constellation that may create new possibilities.”
Netanyahu said that most of the Arab world is opposed to Hamas, and that it is far most isolated than it seems. “Who supports Hamas? Qatar, Turkey, Iran. Who else? Qatar, Turkey, Iran,” he repeated. “The Arab world is against it.”
Asked about the military campaign’s possible next steps, Netanyahu asked: “Who says we gave up on the option of toppling Hamas?” He said there were lots of options and lots of considerations. When deciding how to handle Gaza, he said, one has to consider “who would take control of the territory?”
He says he didn’t know if the goal of long-term calm can be reached via a diplomatic arrangement. But “I don’t recommend giving up on that option” of a more dramatic military offensive against Hamas.
Ya’alon, too, said “all options are open… including a renewed ground operation.”
Already, Netanyahu said, Hamas had been hit “with the strongest blow they’ve ever received.”
“First of all, we prevented — via Iron Dome — attacks by thousands of rockets against our communities. We have killed hundreds of terrorists. We have destroyed thousands of rockets and launchers. We broke up the network of assault tunnels that Hamas built over the years in order to launch simultaneous attacks against our communities and we foiled all of its attempts to attack us from land, sea and air.”
If Hamas seeks a war of attrition against Israel, its attempts at attrition will be met with “a pounding,” against targets including “its commanders” — a possible reference to Deif.
“If they fire, they will be hit, and not just hit but hit very hard. And if Hamas does not understand this today, it will understand it tomorrow. And if not tomorrow then the day after tomorrow. Because in the Middle East, one needs not just military power but stamina and patience,” he said.