PM said to tell ministers Israel must avoid major escalation on multiple fronts

Netanyahu says country cannot be dragged into confrontations with Hamas, Hezbollah, amid uptick in violence in Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and senior defense and military officials hold a meeting ahead of a security cabinet meeting to discuss a response to rocket fire from Lebanon, April 6, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and senior defense and military officials hold a meeting ahead of a security cabinet meeting to discuss a response to rocket fire from Lebanon, April 6, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Israel wants to avoid wider conflicts on multiple fronts and move away from major escalations in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly conveyed to senior ministers on Friday during a meeting before he called in the high-level security cabinet to discuss Israel’s response to a barrage of rockets from Gaza and from Lebanese territory a day earlier.

In a consultation meeting with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, and senior members of the security establishment, Netanyahu said Israel must avoid being dragged into confrontations and wider-scale conflicts and present a united front, according to a report Friday by Channel 12, following months of intense internal upheaval sparked by his government’s judicial overhaul push and other controversial moves by the hawkish coalition.

“There are enough disputes within us on other issues, we are being challenged from everywhere — in the opposition and on the street,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying at the meeting by Channel 12, in reference to months of protests and the intense public criticism over the overhaul drive, which critics warn will undermine democracy.

On matters of security, “we need to avoid unnecessary quarrels within the government,” the premier reportedly said, adding that the coalition needed to communicate strength and unity. This was likely a reference to his decision two weeks ago to fire Gallant for calling for a halt to the overhaul. Gallant remains in his position with Netanyahu never sending an official letter as required by law.

Netanyahu’s warning came amid a surge in violence this past week that saw Israel launch a rare strike into Lebanon in retaliation for a salvo of some three dozen rockets into northern Israel on Thursday afternoon, as well as airstrikes in the Gaza Strip overnight Friday for rocket attacks in southern Israel. The response was followed by a string of terror attacks on Friday that claimed the lives of three people — two Israeli-British sisters and an Italian tourist — in separate attacks in the West Bank and Tel Aviv.

Before Friday’s emergency meeting, Israel’s security cabinet, which would usually convene regularly during a time of increased regional tensions, had not met in some two months, with political commentators assessing that Netanyahu has avoided doing so due to his lack of trust in the judgment of far-right members of his cabinet like Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Israel’s security cabinet meets after rocket barrages from Lebanon, April 6, 2023. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is seated opposite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Both have since criticized Israel’s response to the recent violence and called for tougher action. Ben Gvir said on Friday he was considering leaving the government over its failure to respond forcefully enough to Palestinian terror while insisting that he would support it from the opposition and would not allow the coalition to collapse. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, also a far-right lawmaker, indicated to supporters that his patience for the government was running thin in light of its handling of Palestinian terror.

The rocket barrages from Gaza and Lebanon Thursday were seemingly in response to Israeli police actions on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, where security forces clashed with rioters at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Tuesday and on Wednesday. According to Israel, both volleys were shot by the Hamas terror group, which rules the Strip and has a strong presence in Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

In the meeting, senior security officials told government ministers that Hezbollah was taking measures to show it was not involved in the rocket salvos. Axios reported Friday that the Lebanese terror group, an Iranian proxy, communicated the message to Israel through international mediators that it did not take part and had no previous knowledge of the attacks.

Israeli soldiers near the border with Lebanon, in northern Israel, April 7, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

The news site also reported that Israel was trying to avoid escalating hostilities with Hezbollah, fearing the fighting could broaden into precision strikes on Israeli cities and outright war with the Lebanese terror group.

On Friday morning, Israel limited its counterstrikes in Lebanon, with the Israel Defense Forces targeting Hamas’ “terror infrastructure” in the southern part to avoid drawing Hezbollah into any wider-scale conflict, both Walla and Axios reported on Friday.

But during the meeting, the IDF and Mossad differed in their approach, with the Mossad favoring action against Hezbollah as well as against Hamas. Government ministers supported the IDF’s position of focusing on Hamas and conveyed that it was not currently in Israel’s interest to embark on a massive military operation, preferring a more measured response to the rocket fire from the previous two days, Axios and Walla reported.

Smoke and fire rise from an explosion caused by an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, early Friday, April 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Security officials said, however, that Hezbollah might respond to the strike regardless, as Israel hit Lebanese territory.

The recent uptick in violence came after several months of intense internal upheaval in Israel sparked by the government’s judicial overhaul push and other controversial moves by the hawkish coalition. Opposition to the government has sparked threats of mass insubordination among reserves troops, opened a rift between Netanyahu and the security establishment, and raised questions about support for Israel among its traditional allies.

The domestic unrest “destabilized the country’s economy, military and international standing,” and was “a key factor in the decision-making,” Axios’ Barak Ravid reported, citing defense officials.

Channel 12 cited security sources who said that the ministers in the meeting “don’t really have a clue…they lack information critical to making decisions — regarding the diplomatic and security components, and an understanding of the area. That’s very dangerous at so critical a decision-making juncture.”

Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem warned Friday that “the Zionist attempts to threaten and frighten us will not succeed” and that “the deterrent balance remains in place,” in a statement carried by Hezbollah mouthpiece al-Manar.

The deterrent balance refers to a chilly but mostly peaceful standoff between Israel and Hezbollah in south Lebanon, maintained since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, with neither side seeking a return to battle, but both also vowing readiness to do so.

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