Israel took a two-pronged approach on Saturday night. A diplomatic effort, with Egypt serving as the mediator, was underway to achieve a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces continued to launch strikes in Gaza and prepared to broaden the scope of its actions, including ground operations.
Egypt's efforts to hammer out the outlines of a cease-fire continued throughout the weekend, despite the fiery rhetoric coming from Cairo. While in public President Mohammed Morsi's representatives have stated their solidarity with "their brothers in Gaza" against "Israeli aggression," in private talks they have been more pragmatic and businesslike. On Saturday night, Israeli diplomatic and defense officials were cautiously optimistic that Egypt would soon formulate a cease-fire understanding.
As a condition for a cease-fire, Israel is demanding that Hamas halt all rocket and mortar fire (and impose this on other Gaza terrorist groups) and stop attacks on Israeli troops operating along the border fence. Israel's sole focus in the cease-fire talks is to restore quiet to the south. It is not demanding as part of the cease-fire that the Palestinians end weapons smuggling and production in Gaza.
For its part, Hamas is demanding that Israel completely stop targeted killings and incursions into Palestinian territory. Hamas is also seeking for the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to be opened continuously, without conditions or limitations.
It is possible that Israel will agree to halt targeted killings and incursions, with the exception of preventative actions to thwart terrorist attacks and rocket launches. This exception would likely put any cease-fire agreement to a test in the near future. This is where the deterrence that Israel has achieved from Operation Pillar of Defense will come into play, as Israel hopes that the Palestinians will refrain from rocket fire in the near future due to the blow they have received in recent days.
Israel's deterrence was strengthened over the weekend by three elements. First, Israel expanded its attacks on Hamas targets, including government offices and the homes of Hamas officials (who, not surprisingly, were hiding under hospitals and mosques, fearing for their lives). The second element was the incredible success of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. The Iron Dome has dramatically reduced the effectiveness of rocket fire (only 4 percent of the rockets launched this week succeeded in striking populated areas). The third element was the impressive resilience shown by Israeli civilians on the homefront, including Tel Aviv, where routine life continued despite the rocket fire. In this context, it is important that sporting events were held, studies continued and places of entertainment remained open as normal.
But despite the resilience shown by Israeli civilians, Israel's deterrence was harmed by the fact that Hamas was able to set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, cities that represent the heart of Israel. This made the Iron Dome's interception of a rocket over Tel Aviv on Saturday afternoon very significant. This signaled that Tel Aviv, the most attractive target to Gaza terrorist groups, is now protected.
In light of this success, the Israeli government would be wise to find the funding for the immediate production of another Iron Dome battery (Israel currently has five in operation) and to set the clear goal of having 13 Iron Dome batteries, the number needed to protect most of Israel's populated areas and strategic sites, within the maximum of two years.
The remarkable success of the Iron Dome system has not only saved Israeli lives, it has given Israel breathing space on the decision on whether to expand its military action or agree to a cease-fire. A heavy blow has been struck against Gaza terrorist groups, and the well-publicized call-up of reservists has displayed Israel's willingness to go farther. Thanks to the success of Iron Dome in limiting Israeli casualties on the homefront, the government has been able to manage the military operation without being forcefully dragged into making hasty and dangerous moves.
The fighting could still lead, God forbid, to many casualties on both sides, which is why Israel is not enthusiastic about initiating a ground operation. In any case, such an operation, if it occurs, would have defined goals: improving the security situation in the south by restoring Israel's deterrence through attacks on terrorist groups. The goal would not be to fundamentally change the situation in Gaza. While the IDF on Saturday insisted that it does not fear launching a ground operation, it prefers that a cease-fire be reached, as long as the cease-fire includes an unequivocal understanding that attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers will be halted.
Egypt is the agent that is supposed to deliver the goods. Egypt's significant involvement in efforts to reach a cease-fire (pushed and encouraged by the Americans) is noteworthy. Who would have thought that the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo would urge its allies in Gaza to halt terrorist activities? But this is only a tactical achievement. At the strategic level, Operation Pillar of Defense will not solve the problem in Gaza. Weapons smuggling and production will continue and Israel's deterrence will dissipate, until the next round.
But before that, the current round of fighting continues. As of Saturday night, the IDF had struck 1,000 targets, the Iron Dome had made close to 270 interceptions, and the Palestinians had launched more than 900 rockets. This dramatic data shows the unprecedented intensity of the last four days of fighting and reinforces the need to end the operation on the conditions initially set by the government — to restore the IDF's deterrence and bring quiet to the south.