The Israeli decision to accept the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire deal was made after two days of fierce disputes among the triumverate of top Israeli ministers that led the operation in Gaza, as well as the broader forum of nine.
Since Operation Pillar of Defense was launched last Wednesday night, the Forum of Three – comprising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – met every evening to discuss the continued warfare, and to authorize operational plans and the targets that would be attacked the day after. In the last three days, most of the discussions dealt with the Egyptian efforts at reaching a cease-fire.
At Tuesday's meeting, just before U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived, it became clear to Israel that the principles for a cease-fire being proposed by Egypt were much closer to Hamas' positions than to its own. The assumption voiced by intelligence officials at the triumvirate meeting was that, contrary to the situation during Mubarak's era, the Egyptians are aligning with Hamas and trying to provide it with achievements.
This triggered an acerbic dispute between Barak and Lieberman. The defense minister, opposed to an expansion of the operation, thought Israel should respond positively to Egypt's proposal for a cease-fire and end the operation. Barak said at the meeting that the precise wording of the Egyptian draft is not important since the end of fighting and Israel's power of deterrence would be tested by the reality on the ground.
"A day after the cease-fire, no one will remember what is written in that draft. The only thing that will be tested is the blow Hamas suffered," Barak told Netanyahu and Lieberman. "We can put off the Egyptian proposal and go for a precarious ground incursion of Gaza, but at the end of the day, we may end up with the same exact result."
Lieberman, on the other hand, presented a much harder stance, claiming that the operation until now did not sufficiently reinforce Israel's power of deterrence. The foreign minister advocated for a ground incursion in Gaza, even if limited, in order to show Hamas that Israel is not fearful of entering the Strip.
For the duration of the last few days, Netanyahu constantly vacillated between the positions held by Barak and Lieberman. On the one hand, he expressed doubts about a ground invasion that could get messy, both operationally and politically. On the other hand, the prime minister was worried that the cease-fire agreement would make Israel's effort at building up deterrence against Hamas look like a failure.
The forum's disputes, together with the images from the damaged building in Rishon Letzion that suffered a direct rocket hit, led Israel's leader to delay the cease-fire agreement by a day. The Israeli side began revealing pessimism about the chances of reaching an Egyptian-mediated understanding and a few of Israel's nine ministers even suggested that Israel declare a unilateral cease-fire. "If Hamas continues firing after we call it, we'll have the international legitimacy for a ground incursion," one of the ministers said.
Clinton arrived to the Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday evening straight from the airport, and was immediately informed of Israel's reservations. Clinton and her staff left Netanyahu's office at 2:00 A.M., but continued making phone calls to Cairo and Washington until 4:00 A.M.
During breakfast with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at a Jerusalem hotel, Clinton looked tired, but optimistic. She made a quick trip to Ramallah and from there returned to Jerusalem for another meeting with Nentanyahu, Barak, and Lieberman, before heading for Cairo. The three Israeli ministers requested that she pressure Egypt to present a more balanced cease-fire agreement.
During both her meetings with Netanyahu, Clinton activated her power of persuasion in order to make clear to the Israeli premier that adopting the Egyptian draft was the best course of action. U.S. President Barack Obama also pushed the issue in a few telephone calls with the Israeli prime minister.
The American message was clear: Adopting Egypt's cease-fire draft was much the preferred choice. At the same time, Obama and Clinton promised Netanyahu incentives in the form of increased U.S. pressure on Egypt regarding weapons smuggling to Gaza, and a commitment to provide more funds for additional Iron Dome missile defense systems.
At the start of the Forum of Nine's meeting on Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu was already leaning towards Barak's position. However, during the meeting there was a bitter argument about Egypt's draft.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai both advocated for intensifying the operation in Gaza. Steinitz said there should be a ground invasion with the goal of overthrowing Hamas, while Yishai argued that Israel should continue to strike all possible targets in Gaza by air.
Barak, together with ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, expressed fierce opposition to Steinitz and Yishai. At one point Netanyahu openly sided with those advocating for the cease-fire agreement, while Lieberman insisted Steinitz had the right idea.
Ultimately, Lieberman also made clear that there was no choice but to accept the cease-fire. "The decision is simple," the foreign minister said at the Forum of Nine meeting. "Rabin said that if they fire from Gaza, we will reoccupy, but this is obviously difficult. There are a lot of emotions going around, and I identified with the finance minister, but reality is more complex."