Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon took the right step when they called a press conference on Sunday night at the defense compound in Tel Aviv. The public had officially found out an hour earlier, to its shock, about the large number of soldiers killed in the Gaza Strip over the preceding 24 hours, and certainly needed to hear what its leaders had to say.
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Netanyahu and Ya’alon looked coordinated, cool, calm and determined to attain their declared goal, which seemed general and vague on the one hand, and realistic and carefully considered on the other: restoring quiet “for a long period,” while dealing “a harsh blow to Hamas.”
Netanyahu gave an interesting answer to the question of why he had agreed to the initial cease-fire Egypt proposed last Tuesday if he was aware of the great strategic threat of the tunnels. “Our agreement helped us attain legitimization and international support for the operation,” he said.
Either this was a retroactive interpretation of his decision, or he had forgotten to inform Avigdor Lieberman about it: Indeed, a few hours later in an angry press conference, the foreign minister slammed the prime minister's agreement to a possible truce.
Despite the heavy price paid in the last day or so, the feeling is that most Israelis still support Operation Protective Edge. But public opinion here is fickle: It wants a resounding and unqualified victory, but at as low as possible price in terms of the lives of soldiers. Any outcome that does not have both of these components will not be considered a “success.”
Defeating Hamas on the battlefield while striking a mortal blow at its infrastructure and taking out its military leadership will almost certainly cost the lives of many soldiers. However, the attempt to exit this operation with minimal losses to our forces will come, for lack of any other option, at the expense of military objectives; that is, the outcome will not be clear and decisive.
It is difficult to see a bottom line of Operation Protective Edge that attains both these objectives: a satisfyingly decisive outcome and what is considered by the public to be a "tolerable" number of casualties. And it is hard, at the moment, to see an optimistic exit scenario.
A bitter, angry, complaining public is bad news for the prime minister and his political survival. It can have implications down the road. Today we can understand why Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz were in no hurry to send ground forces into Gaza. They waited and waited, exhausting all other options, until they had no choice. They knew better than to listen to the rabble-rousers pushing their way into the television studios and the corridors of politics; they grasped what such an incursion would mean and the dangers lurking in the alleyways, caves and tunnels of Gaza.
At least no one can blame them for being hasty or rushing into battle.
Netanyahu made it clear on Sunday night that the operation would go on for as long as necessary, and even talked about expanding and deepening the ground action. Ya’alon echoed him. They had to say this – given what had happened during the previous hours. Any sign of hesitation, weakness or fear would have put wind in Hamas’ sails.
We may assume that Netanyahu has two contradictory feelings at this point: One is to push on, full steam ahead, strike the terror organization and make it sorry for ever starting this mess. The other is that he would certainly be happy to cut Israel's losses, stop in the near future and reach a reasonable diplomatic agreement that he can present as an achievement, alongside the blow Hamas has already suffered.
That is quite a dilemma; damned if you do and damned if you don’t.