Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ruled Sunday, Aug. 21, that his government's first priority is to let Egypt's military rulers have the kudos of brokering a ceasefire in the four-day Palestinian missile war against Israel from Gaza – and deal some time in the future with the Palestinian Jihad Islami, which fired most of the 100 missiles exploding in Israel from Gaza since last Thursday.
DEBKAfile's analysts criticize this decision as one of the prime minister's most unfortunate strategic mistakes since he took office nearly three years ago. During the day, Netanyahu directed Maj. Gen. Meir Eshel, head of the Planning Division in the General Command, who was standing by in Cairo from early morning, to accept Egypt's proposal for Hamas to declare a ceasefire as of 9 pm Sunday night, Aug. 21.
The prime minister acted under the harsh impression of Cairo's decision a day earlier to recall the Egyptian ambassador from Israel to protest the deaths of Egyptian policemen during Thursday's Palestinian terror attack on the Eilat road. Washington stepped in speedily to defuse that crisis.
According to our sources, up until Sunday afternoon, Netanyahu had not briefed either Defense Minister Ehud Barak or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on his decision to accept a Gaza ceasefire, sharing it only with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. The defense minister while touring the Iron Dome anti-missile battery in Ashkelon Sunday told the suffering citizens of the town they would have to put up with the attacks for another few days, but Israel would be sure to "separate [its enemies'] heads from their bodies."
Barak had not realized when he made this remark that the prime minister had ruled in favor of taking up Egypt's offer to mediate a ceasefire and against embarking on military action against the Iran-sponsored Palestinian terrorists plaguing southern Israel with hourly missile fire.
Netanyahu was won over by the assurance Washington received from Egypt's military rulers that the Jihad Islami's leader Ramadan Shalah had endorsed the Hamas truce.
Because the prime minister did not trust Shalah, he held out a single condition for Israel's acceptance: The Palestinians must uphold the ceasefire for 12 hours up until Monday morning, Aug. 22.
There were no other provisions on the Israeli side – any more than there were five months ago, when the Netanyahu government gave its unconditional consent to a Hamas ceasefire from April 24. Then too he agreed the IDF would not strike terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip so long as no missiles were fired from there.
DEBKAfile's military sources complain that Netanyahu did not even insist on Hamas taking responsibility for preventing any terrorists from any Gaza-based organization striking Israel targets - like the gunmen from Gaza who shot up the Eilat Highway near the Egyptian border Thursday and left eight Israelis dead.
Three hours after the deadline Hamas set for the truce to go into effect, Jihad Islami predictably fired another three Grad missiles against Ashkelon. As the night wore on, more missiles were fired at Ashkelon, Sderot and the Eshkol district, following which the Israeli Air Force struck terrorist targets in northern and central Gaza.
Military circles explain that these truces often need 24 hours to take hold before the attacks die down altogether.
However, according to our sources Jihad was making a show of defiance. It was intended to show Israel, Egypt and Hamas that not only had Iran's Palestinian surrogate broken all records in the number of missiles fired on Israel's cities, but it was free to restart its missile offensive any time it wished.
Those sources don't make light of the prime minister's overriding desire to pacify the new rulers of Egypt and keep the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty safe from the disruptions which could result from strained relations. This consideration is a weighty one, they say. On the other hand, the cost of this concession to Israel's national security interests is prohibitive:
1. By giving into Cairo, Netanyahu has already gone a long way toward meeting the military rulers' demands to revise the peace accords signed at Camp David and allow Egyptian troops to be deployed on the Egyptian-Israeli Sinai border for the first time in three decades.
2. This concession is just the start. The generals depend heavily on the Muslim Brotherhood for controlling the Egyptian street and its hotheads and will therefore present Israel with more demands to further the interests of coexistence with the Brothers.
3. Letting Jihad Islami have the last word in the Gaza Strip confrontation grants its masters, Iran and Hizballah, a victory and encourages them to believe that the Netanyahu government is easy prey and will cave in again under the pressure of renewed missile and terror attacks.
4. Since Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip and its army's withdrawal from the Philadelphi border dividing Gaza from Sinai, every understanding Israel and Egypt have reached has one way or another undermined Israeli security and undercut its strategic leverage – mainly because Cairo never fully met its obligations. There is no reason that this time should be any different.
The role of Iran and Hizballah in manipulating the ongoing Palestinian war on Israel from Gaza is manifest, DEBKAfile's military sources report. They planned, orchestrated and funded the coordinated attacks on the Eilat Highway Thursday, Aug. 18 - in which gunmen shot dead eight Israelis and injured 40 - and its sequel: volleys of 90 missiles launched day and night from Gaza against a million Israeli civilians since then.
Yossi Shoshan, 38, from Ofakim, was killed by one of the dozen Grad missiles hitting Beersheba and his home town Saturday night. More than a dozen people were injured, at least one critically.
The prime mover in the missile blitz is Tehran's Palestinian arm, the Jihad Islami, which is responsible for 90 percent of the launches. Hamas is left on the sidelines, cut off for the first time from top levels of authority in Tehran and Damascus.
The IDF is held back from substantive action to snuff out the Iran-backed offensive by the indecision at the policy-making level of the Israeli government, which is still feeling its way toward determining the dimensions and potential thrust of the military crisis landing on Israel out of the blue.
Under Egyptian, Israeli and US noses, Tehran managed to transfer to its Palestinian arm in Gaza, the Jihad Islami, more than 10,000 missiles well in advance of the violence launched three days ago. Most of them are heavy Grads bringing Beersheba, capital of the Negev and Israel's 7th largest town (pop. 200,000), within their 30-kilometer range for a sustained, massive missile offensive.
Tehran has now launched the hardware smuggled into the Gaza Strip ready for a Middle East war offensive for five objectives:
1. To leave Syrian President Bashar Assad free to continue brutalizing his population and ignoring President Barack Obama's demand backed by Europe that he step down.
2. To manufacture a direct military threat on the Jewish state, whose destruction is a fundamental of the Islamic Republic of Iran's ideology.
3. To thwart the Egyptian military junta's operation last week for regaining control of the lawless Sinai Peninsula and destroying the vast weapons smuggling network serving Iran in its capacity as the leading international sponsor of terror.
4. To render the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his bid for UN recognition of an independent state on Sept. 20 irrelevant. His isolation was brought home to him last Thursday by the coordinated Palestinian terrorist attacks near Eilat last Thursday.
5. To plant ticking bombs around Israel for potential detonation and explosion into a full-blown regional war.
DEBKAfile's Washington sources disclose that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined this peril to Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshall Muhammad Tantawi, Saturday night, Aug. 20, to dissuade him from recalling the Egyptian ambassador to Israel over the deaths of three or five Egyptian police in the melee over the Palestinian terror attack near the Sinai border.
This danger was on the table of Israel's inner cabinet of eight ministers when they met early Sunday to decide on IDF action for terminating the Palestinian missile war.
However, just as Cairo discovered that its operation for eradicating al Qaeda and other Islamist radical groups' grip on Sinai would give Iran the pretext for aggression, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the IDF high command found themselves at a loss to determine whom to attack.
Up until now, Israel declared the Hamas rulers of Gaza accountable for all attacks originating in the enclave.
That formula is no longer valid. The Eilat Highway attacks were planned and executed behind Hamas's back and so was the missile offensive - until Saturday night, when Hamas decided to try and step in. Both Hamas and Cairo are in fact out of the picture.
Israel's leaders are stuck for solutions because no one in Washington, Jerusalem or Cairo can be sure of the outcome of any military steps they might take. They can't be sure whether they will douse the violence or just play into the hands of Hizballah and Tehran who may have more shockers in their quivers ready to loose.
Only three facts stand out from the fog of uncertainty:
First, the security crisis besetting Israel has the dangerous potential for dragging the Middle East into a regional war.
Second, America and Israel are paying in full the price of their quiescence in the face of Iranian, Hizballah and extremist Palestinian belligerence and active preparations for war, including the stockpiling of thousands of increasingly sophisticated weaponry on Israel's borders.
Third, the first step an Israeli soldier or tank takes into the Gaza Strip to silence Jihad Islami's missile fire is more likely than not to precipitate a second Iranian-orchestrated assault on another of Israel's borders.
Sunday morning, no one in any of the capitals concerned was ready to risk guesstimating how far Tehran was ready to go in its current offensive and what orders Hizballah and its Palestinian puppets had received.