Israel, which stormed Gaza four years ago to end cross-border rocket attacks, is considering new measures to stop a fresh spate of missiles from the Hamas-ruled territory, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday.
Between meetings with top generals and fellow Cabinet ministers, Barak said that military operations will intensify if Palestinian rocket barrages continue, even as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood leadership seeks to broker a cease-fire.
"Basically it's not yet over," Barak, 70, said in an interview at Tel Aviv's Defense Ministry compound named for slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. "I cannot go into details, but we cannot accept it. A way should be found to convince Hamas that it is too costly for them to continue."
Upheaval across the Arab world has stoked the conflicts simmering around Israel, with Hamas-controlled Gaza and battle- torn Syria the most pressing concerns. Barak is seeking to manage the crises as he fights for his political life with elections approaching in January. Some polls show his splinter Independence Party may not garner enough votes to retain a single seat in parliament and its place in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition.
"This is a very delicate time in the Middle East and the cycle of violence between Israel and Hamas has gotten magnified," said Shlomo Brom, a retired general and senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. "Neither Barak nor Netanyahu can be perceived as being weak."
Attacks from Gaza have slowed amid efforts to broker a truce, with two being fired today. Palestinians have fired 123 rockets and mortar shells into Israel since Nov. 10 and have fired 14,000 in the past 11 years, according to the Defense Ministry.
Barak, who was Israel's most highly decorated soldier before his 1991 appointment as the country's top general and 1999 election as prime minister, said Nov. 11 that he "won't hesitate" to send ground troops into Gaza if that's what it takes to stop the attacks from Gaza. Eight Israelis have been injured since the conflict flared up Nov. 10.
"I don't believe that someone has to be buried in order to justify a response," said Barak, whose office is decorated with busts of former prime ministers David Ben Gurion and Rabin. Behind him is a biography of Albert Einstein and a photograph from an Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama.
Barak has served as defense minister since 2007, during which time he led the last Israeli ground attack on Gaza, the three-week Operation Cast Lead, in which more than 1,100 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were killed.
No matter who fires the rockets, Barak said Israel holds Hamas responsible because it has ruled the coastal territory since purging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party loyalists in 2007. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European Union.
"No sovereign on earth" would accept a situation where a fifth of the population is under daily shelling, said Barak, tieless with a black leather jacket after returning from a morning field trip outside Gaza. "We basically cannot live with it. It's crazy."
Efforts by Egypt to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas have been slower than in the past following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, who developed close personal ties with Barak and other Israeli leaders in his 30 years in power.
"When relationships are more intimate — sometimes without even talking explicitly about every detail — more can be achieved," Barak said. "In the past, there were people who could answer you immediately," Barak said. Since President Mohammed Morsi came to power, military counterparts now "have to ask the political leadership."
Barak and Netanyahu, longtime political rivals, have come together to debate Obama over whether to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities to stop it from building an atomic weapon. The defense minister has taken the lead at times in asserting that Iran is close to entering a "zone of immunity" when its nuclear installations will be so heavily fortified that an attack would be useless.
The Obama administration has publicly disagreed with Netanyahu on how to block Iran's nuclear capability and the timing of any military strikes. Iran says its atomic program is only for peaceful purposes while Netanyahu points to statements from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and says his hostile intentions are clear.
"I can understand why an American president wants to be sure that all other alternatives were accepted before he turns to physical action if we ever contemplate it," Barak said. "We expect the administration to keep respecting, as they did in the first term, that ultimately it is the Israeli leadership and only the Israeli government who has to make the decision."
As for Iran's nuclear program, "I'm not very optimistic about convincing them to give up their plans," Barak said.
Barak dismissed attacks by the opposition that Netanyahu hurt Israel's strategic alliance with the U.S. through his very public disagreements.
"Some people warned us that this president, if he's elected, he will take revenge, but I don't see it," Barak said, adding he's worked with U.S. administrations since Ronald Reagan was in office. "I am confident the Obama administration will work professionally with any Israeli government."
"In regard to defense, the Obama administration probably did more than previous administrations to deepen and strengthen the relationship," he said.
Barak enjoys playing Beethoven piano sonatas in his free time and picking locks. His past as an Israeli commando includes dressing as a woman, in a brown wig and high heels, to assassinate three Palestinian leaders in a house in Beirut. Married for a second time in 2007, he has three grown daughters.
He helped to free hostages in 1972 aboard a hijacked Belgian Sabena airliner. A photograph of a younger Barak on the wing of the Sabena plane, pistol in hand and disguised as a member of the airport ground crew, also sits on the bookshelf behind his desk.
As prime minister, Barak led Israel's unilateral military evacuation from southern Lebanon in 2000. He negotiated head-to- head with Yasser Arafat and was defeated in a re-election bid the following year by Ariel Sharon, who later suffered a stroke and has been in a coma since 2006.
While he regrets failing to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, he said it's difficult to have high expectations.
"We use the left hand to look to open any window or any door to see whether peace can be made, but at the same time to have the pointer finger on the trigger ready to pull it should the need arise," Barak said. "That's the only way to survive here."
— With reporting by Daniel Moss and Andrew J. Barden in Tel Aviv.