Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened Sunday's cabinet meeting with a few words to the mothers of Israel Defense Forces soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip.
"I thought a lot about you since the start of the operation, and even more so as the decision to launch a ground operation approached," Olmert said.
"I hesitated with myself and with my fellow ministers as to whether there was another step, another measure, another effort that we haven't made before sending the boys to a place full of risks, a place from which some of them may not return.
"This morning, I can look each of you in the eye and say that the government has done everything it could before decided to launch the operation. This was an inevitable operation."
On the ninth day of the IDF's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the cabinet met for its weekly meeting at the Kirya army base in Tel Aviv, and saying the decision to launch a ground operation was made with a heavy heart, Olmert said, "We have decided to send the boys to protect the parents, the brothers, the sisters, and the neighbors that remained at home.
"This conclusion was not reached with a light heart. For many months we gave the truce a chance, in hopes that the need for a wide-scale military operation could be avoided. Our hopes were let down."
Detailing the operation's goals, Olmert said, "The ground operation, that we started last night, is meant to set the foundations for our desire to change the security reality in the south.
"IDF forces set out to damage the military infrastructure set up by Hamas, and to take over launch areas from which many rockets were fired that hit Sderot in recent months and weeks, and Ashkelon and even Ashdod in recent days."
"In a responsible and determined country, we cannot allow the Home Front to be a target for attacks without the bold, strong and skilled army defending it."
'Now more than ever, people of Israel are one'
Olmert told the cabinet ministers Israel was also in the midst of a diplomatic battle. Referring to talks held with different world leaders, Olmert said, "I presented them with Israel's stance and its goals, and I discussed with them the unavoidable circumstances that lead the State of Israel to reach the conclusion that there was no choice but to use force to bring about a change in the situation.
"The political arena is not a simple one, even our best friends are concerned and worried, but the great majority of them have shown understanding and support."
Olmert stressed that "Israel is not fighting the Palestinian people in Gaza, they are not our enemy. They too are the victims of violent, murderous oppression by the terror organizations. To them I say, in the name of all the people of Israel: We will not allow a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. We will help provide food and medicine, just as any moral and enlightened country should behave."
In a message to Arab countries, Iran and Hizbullah, Olmert said, "Israel has no interest in opening other fronts apart from the southern front – not in the east, and not in the north.
"But caution has urged me to instruct the defense establishment to be on the highest alert and to be prepared for all developments, in case anyone thinks this is their opportunity to take advantage of Israel's advancement on the southern front and try to change the stability that was created following past incidents."
The prime minister ended his speech with an address to the citizens of Israel, saying, "These are difficult times – our boys are out in the battlefield. Let us be worthy of their courage and sacrifice, let us keep calm and not go overboard with rioting.
"We will behave as a responsible and reasonable society, the way we know how to behave in times of decisions of national importance. My heart and the hearts of the people of Israel are with its fighters.
"We in the political echelon will limit our statements, and try to transmit responsible and reliable information to the public in real time, and put our rivalries and disputes aside. Now more than ever, the people of Israel are one people."
Barak foresees surprises
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said before entering the meeting, "This operation is neither easy nor simple. It will be expanded and deepened as needed."
According to Barak, "The real test is not here in Tel Aviv, but there in Gaza. We are backing up the fighters in any way possible. The fighting is being held as planned. The operation will be filled with surprises and tests, and we need courage and determination. If we're united we'll be able to complete this operation and have the upper hand."
Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas, called on his colleagues to reject any international attempt to impose a ceasefire.
"Only after missiles land in Paris, Rome, Ankara and Chicago, we'll agree to hear about initiatives and international pressure. In the meantime, the missiles are landing in Ashdod, Sderot and Ashkelon."
Shas Chairman Eli Yishai joined him by saying, "The world must stop preaching us. We have suffered from years, and now we are working to defend the south's residents."
Science, Culture and Sports Minister Raleb Majadele, who had boycotted the previous meeting and was harshly slammed and punished by the prime minister, showed up this time.
"Peace is the only way to solve the region's problems," he said before the meeting.