Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave private assurances to Barack Obama on Friday evening that his country was not planning at that moment to launch a ground invasion of Gaza—but those plans would change, he said, if Hamas escalated its rocket war.
The private assurances were at odds with public signals from Israel’s military. Tanks and artillery gathered at the border with Gaza on Saturday in preparation for what looked like an incursion. Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told The Telegraph, “Morale is high. We are currently training and preparing for ground possibilities.”
But this was not the message from the Israeli leader in his conversation with Obama, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the call. These sources say Netanyahu said Israel would not consider a full-scale ground invasion unless there was escalation from Hamas or a strike that caused significant casualties. There has not been, for example, a date set for such an invasion—nor are the other kinds of contingency plans Israel would need in such a circumstance in place, according to these U.S. officials, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the conversations.
One senior U.S. official told The Daily Beast, “The Israeli leadership at this point is leaning against a ground invasion. No one wants that. If Hamas ratchets up the pressure, however, they may elect to do so.”
A U.S. intelligence official said the conversations between Netanyahu and Obama are markedly different than their discussions on Iran, in which Netanyahu pointedly declined to give Obama assurances that Israel would not unilaterally strike Iran.
Similar to his posturing on Iran, Netanyahu has given the impression at times that a strike on Gaza may be imminent. On Saturday, he vaguely promised to “broaden action inside Gaza” if the rocket barrages did not stop. He has called up 75,000 army reservists. Less than 13,000 reservists were activated before the 2008–2009 war in Gaza.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, did not comment on Netanyahu’s Friday call with Obama. He did, however, say the prospect of an invasion had not been ruled out.
“If they keep shooting at 5.5 million Israelis at the current rate we will have no choice but to use all necessary and legitimate means to defend our citizens and that includes possible ground action,” he told The Daily Beast.
While the barrage of rockets has forced millions of Israelis to live in bomb shelters, the rockets themselves have been largely thwarted, in part by Israel’s various missile-defense systems. The most effective missile-defense system appears to be Iron Dome, for which the U.S. granted $205 million in Fiscal Year 2011, which ended on Sept. 30. Thus far, the program has intercepted 90 percent of those rockets that would have fallen on populated areas, according Israeli military spokesmen.
Another reason Israel may not launch a full-scale invasion into Gaza again is because the Jewish state paid a significant political cost in the aftermath of what was called Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009. That operation claimed at least 1,166 Palestinian lives, according to the official Israeli estimate. Israel withdrew the last of its ground forces on Jan. 21, 2009, one day after President Obama took the oath of office.
The U.N. Human Rights Council (a body that has ignored atrocities in Syria, Sudan, and Iran) launched an investigation led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone claiming Israel deliberately targeted civilians in that war. Goldstone later rescinded his claim and apologized for the report.
Netanyahu, in his current term as prime minister, has developed a reputation for tough talk but stealth action. Under Netanyahu, the IDF has conducted daring operations against what it considers the global support network for Hamas in Sudan and Ukraine and other countries far away from Israel. At the same time, Israel has not launched a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, despite many public threats to do so.