Operation Pillar of Defense achieved its objectives, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Thursday amid accusations that the costly operation had been cut short prematurely without subduing Hamas.
“I believe power lies not just in striking, but also in restraint,” Liberman told Channel 2 News, saying that the issue of Hamas rule in Gaza was far from resolved – but now was not the time to resolve it.
“Everyone in the state of Israel, every mother and father, should be aware that a [ground operation in Gaza] is a last resort for when there is no other option … I don’t want to go into too much detail, but let everyone imagine our soldiers entering all the alleyways of the refugee camps, all the streets of Gaza, Rafah – it’s not going to be easy,” he stressed.
A senior diplomatic source told the channel that a full-fledged ground operation could have cost Israel some 200 lives, well above the death tolls for 2008′s Operation Cast Lead, in which 13 soldiers were killed, and the 121 soldiers killed in 2006′s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Liberman, together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has been under heavy pressure from the Israeli public to defend the decision to end the operation Wednesday.
Residents in the south held protests Wednesday and Thursday against the government’s decision, complaining that the country’s leaders had accomplished nothing and the rocket fire would soon continue.
Barak and Liberman told the channel that they could not make decisions only based on public opinion.
“There’s no use in listening to the Israeli public where these matters are concerned –- the leadership has to make decisions,” Barak said, adding that the leadership had a wider field of vision on which to base its decisions. “I remember situations in which the 80 percent of the Israeli public supported something, and after 10 days it turned out that it was a huge failure. We decided the time hadn’t come for a large-scale operation to enter Gaza and conquer it … we may get there in the future, but it’s very important that we get there when the international community, and especially the United States, understands our position.”
Liberman, considered the most hawkish of the triumvirate, said the government had done the best it could given the situation it was in.
“It’s clear to me that in the circumstances we were in, we made the best possible decision. It’s impossible to share all the considerations, all the data, all the deliberations – and there were many – with the public. But at the end of the day, we created a new reality: we defined the objectives of the operation in a precise and measured way. It wasn’t a strategic operation,” said Liberman. He stressed that Operation Pillar of Defense had three main objectives, all of which were fulfilled, he said – “ending the rocket fire against Israeli civilians, rehabilitating our power of deterrence and destroying [Hamas's] Fajr 5 stockpiles.”
Liberman referred to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who he said received a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the creation of the Oslo Accords. “When they told him, ‘What will we do if there is shooting from Gaza?’, he said, ‘What’s the problem? We’ll reconquer Gaza.’ Apparently, it’s not so easy to conquer Gaza.”
The foreign minister stressed that a partial ground operation would not suffice to fulfill Israel’s long-term strategic goals. “If you go for a ground operation, you go all the way,” he said, adding that in the current “international circumstances” Israel could not have sent combat forces into Gaza. “It’s not a two-day operation … I think it’s clear that conquering Gaza, subduing Hamas, that won’t take two months, not three months and not even four months. I don’t think it would have been right to make such a decision now, at this time,” he said. “I think we did the best we could.”
Liberman said the battle against Hamas wasn’t conducted just on the military front. “There’s a diplomatic front as well … and sometimes it’s no less important,” he said. “I say that in this case – and it isn’t possible to share all the considerations with everyone – it was the right decision, it’s the right decision even if it’s unpopular at times, and I can understand the public sentiment that an opportunity was missed.”
Asked if the Israeli government had deliberately decided to negotiate with Hamas after pushing West Bank-based Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the sidelines, Liberman responded that Abbas was simply implementing a “division of labor” by engaging in “political terrorism,” leaving the “terrorism on the ground” to Hamas. “We aren’t talking to Hamas. We’re talking to Egypt,” Liberman said.
Hamas emerged from the conflict with a significant gain in international credibility, with Arab and Turkish diplomats pouring into the Palestinian territory to show support. Though it is defined as a terror group by Israel, the United States and others, it was treated as an equal partner with Israel during indirect cease-fire talks in Egypt. As the Arab Spring brings Islamists to power across the region, Hamas’s influence appears to be on the rise.
Barak told Channel 2, however, that while the group was celebrating its “victory,” it had not won anything at all.
“In Gaza, they are deceiving their people,” he said. “They are celebrating the shooting down of the F-16, as well as the rockets that allegedly landed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We know the truth,” said Barak, referring to false Hamas claims.
He added that the mere memory of Operation Pillar of Defense would prevent Hamas from breaking the ceasefire.
“In my estimation, today we will obtain a relatively long hiatus,” Barak said. “A long line of commanders was targeted, and their military chief is dead and buried … they don’t really have achievements.”