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Friday, December 28, 2007
Amos Harel: Public being prepared to accept ongoing rocket attacks - even major hit

"It seems as though the wave of reports is aimed at preparing the public for
the possibility that the government will forgo a big operation at this time
and continue to absorb sporadic Qassam rocket fire at Sderot, provided Hamas
does not overdo it...Barak and Olmert believe Israel does not have to adopt
a special policy because a lone Qassam rocket lands in a certain place,
however lethal the results.."

Cautious optimism
By Amos Harel Haaretz 28 December 2007
www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/939201.html

We are being told that very little is happening to secure the release of
abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, but the media is ripe
with reports about the details of a deal that may be taking shape. We are
promised that there is nothing to talk about with Hamas, but there is no end
to the discussion about an emerging tahadiya (cease-fire) between Israel and
the Palestinian terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip. Is this not much
ado about nothing?

The questions one must ask are: Who is disseminating the information to the
media, who stands to benefit from its publication and what interests
underlie many of the reports? There are, of course, actual developments on
the ground: Hamas' political wing is in fact showing interest in a
cease-fire. Egypt has renewed its mediation between the two sides for a
Shalit release; Hamas may soon provide a new list of prisoners whose release
it demands, and may display greater flexibility. But the progress made in
all these channels was inflated, in collaboration with the media, which was
too eager at times, and those who leaked the information (most of them from
Israel's political echelon), who benefit from a rise in the general level of
optimism.

Why is this happening just now? Apparently it is connected with the burning
political- security question looming as 2007 comes to a close: To occupy
Gaza or not to occupy Gaza? There is no great enthusiasm for such a move. It
is hard to find broad support for a large-scale operation in the levels
above the GOC Southern Command, Major General Yoav Galant, and the commander
of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General Moshe Tamir. It seems as though the
wave of reports is aimed at preparing the public for the possibility that
the government will forgo a big operation at this time and continue to
absorb sporadic Qassam rocket fire at Sderot, provided Hamas does not overdo
it.

A temporary truce will render moot the urgency of the arguments being voiced
by proponents of a ground operation. No one is going to war over a Hamas
munitions buildup. One can already hear the counter-arguments from the
political echelon: a cease-fire will also make it possible for Israel to
improve the protective facilities in Sderot (first for homes, then for a
missile-interception system). After all, is Israel going to war again on the
northern border against Hezbollah, which has improved its rocket deployment
north of the Litani River?

If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can succeed in obtaining Shalit's return as
part of a cease-fire with Hamas, he will have a winning hand. Olmert
commands an overwhelming majority in the cabinet that will allow him to set
more flexible criteria for releasing Palestinian security prisoners. The
right-wing will scream, but with Shalit's fate as part of the equation
(Hamas is sufficiently sophisticated to release another video of Shalit at
the appropriate time), the deal will go through. Even a deal in which 430
prisoners, most of them Palestinians, were released in return for a drug
dealer in Hezbollah captivity was authorized four years ago. From the
public's point of view, Shalit's emotional return home, together with a
declaration that the responsibility and moderation projected by the
government saved the lives of thousands of other soldiers, will sweeten the
pill of showing restraint toward Hamas.

So, if Hamas can get the splinter groups to agree on a tahadiya, it will
find in Israel a silent, if indirect partner. Until this question is
resolved, the IDF will continue doing more of the same: raids in the
"security strip," up to three kilometers past the fence that surrounds the
Gaza Strip; assassinations (mainly of senior Islamic Jihad figures); and a
continuation of the economic pressure.

Soon the money collected at the meeting of donor countries in Paris by Salam
Fayyad, the prime minister in Ramallah, will start pouring into the Gaza
Strip. If Fayyad manages to ensure that the money reaches only Fatah
supporters, Hamas' distress will increase. In the meantime, the Israeli
government and the army are taking pride in tactical achievements in the
day-to-day struggle against the terrorists.

Barak and Olmert believe Israel does not have to adopt a special policy
because a lone Qassam rocket lands in a certain place, however lethal the
results. This is an important distinction, but whether it will stand the
political test of time is another matter. Also militating against a
large-scale ground operation at this time is the absence of an "exit plan."
Israel has not been able to get others - from the United States to the Fatah
government - to agree to a comprehensive assault against Hamas. Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas is in no hurry to volunteer to seize control in Gaza
after Hamas is defeated. In this context Barak has lately been quoting
Napoleon: You can do a lot with bayonets, but you can't sit on them.

2. Egypt - tension

It had been a full seven years since Ehud Barak last visited Sharm
el-Sheikh. He probably doesn't have very fond memories of the last time. It
was in October 2000, two weeks after the eruption of the Al-Aqsa intifada.
U.S. President Bill Clinton sponsored an international conference in an
attempt to bring about a cease-fire. The understandings collapsed shortly
after Barak and Yasser Arafat returned to Jerusalem and Ramallah,
respectively.

This week the issues on the agenda were a bit less dramatic. Barak did not
come to strike a deal for the return of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was abducted on
Olmert's watch, and it is the prime minister who has to set things right,
both morally and politically. If there had been a genuine ribbon to cut,
Olmert would have gone to Sharm el-Sheikh, not Barak.

Wednesday's meeting with President Hosni Mubarak was held in inauspicious
circumstances. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is usually very judicious,
came out with a gaffe, or was dragged into making it by MK Yuval Steinitz
(Likud), the head of the anti-Egypt lobby. Livni, who was critical of
Egypt's poor performance in blocking weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip,
did not deviate by so much as a millimeter from the consensus on this issue,
both within the government and the defense es ablishment, but doing so
publicly offended Cairo, which moved immediately from the status of accused
to that of victim and took skillful advantage of the incident. Barak, who
suddenly found himself in the role of having to put out the fire, went about
the task cautiously. To the press and the Egyptians he promised that, "In
the future, when disputes arise, we will deal with them together," and
emphasized Israel's commitment to the peace with Egypt, which he views as a
strategic asset.

But Barak, too, finds it difficult to resolve the contradiction between the
sharp Israeli criticism of the Egyptian failure on the border, and
declarations of eternal friendship. True, the government is not behind the
initiative of Steinitz, who together with a delegation of MKs wants to
persuade the U.S. Congress to slash aid to Egypt as punishment for the
smuggling. The director of Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin,
who was asked about this recently by an American delegation, said he
objected to harsh measures against Egypt. At the same time, Israel, too, is
looking for ways to get Washington to press Cairo to improve its
performance.

The defense minister made a big effort to smooth things over, with partial
success. Barak's replies were more diplomatic than ever. The Egyptian media
remained hostile, and the Egyptian journalists, most of whom went out of
their way to avoid their Israeli colleagues, competed among themselves in
asking long questions, which condemned the occupation, the settlements and
"Israeli terrorism." The Egyptians were not persuaded by the high-ranking
Israeli guest, the more so because he did not come across as particularly
focused. It's easy to see when Barak is unfocused: He reverts to English
from the kibbutz ("Shalom, lehitraot and bye").

3. Winograd - Imminent

As soon as the dust of the Egyptian to-do settles, we will be able to move
to the next to-do: the final report by the Winograd Committee, which
investigated the Second Lebanon War. The report is expected to be released
in the second half of January. Even though the war is becoming a distant
memory, the debate over its management and its results remains as passionate
as ever. Two conversations this week, less than 24 hours apart, with two
high-ranking members of the security establishment (one took an active part
in the war, the other did not) turned up two completely different
viewpoints: between relative success, which has not yet gained the
appreciation it deserves, and abject failure.

The final report will not resolve these differences, just as the disputes
over the 1973 Yom Kippur War continue to arise every October. The trouble is
that the Winograd Committee, with its rather erratic judicial behavior and
with the vigorous aid of Olmert's office, has consistently undermined its
own status. As such, it may have lost part of the validity the final report
will receive.

Still, it is likely to be a stinging judgment, from which few will emerge
unscathed. The members of the committee have good reason to be angry, not
least at the way they were maneuvered into releasing a final report, which
will not contain "personal conclusions" about those involved. One of the
emerging directions is apparently trenchant professional criticism of the
IDF for not warning Olmert and the defense minister, Amir Peretz, both of
them inexperienced, that 60 hours would not be enough to chalk up
achievements in the last move, when the army tried unsuccessfully to reach
the Litani (the only ranking officer who warned against the mistake was the
chief of operations at the time, Major General Gadi Eisenkot).

In the meantime, the prime minister's team of spokesman is already working
at full tilt. The goal is to wrap Olmert "like an etrog," the delicate
Sukkot citrus fruit, in a manner that will neutralize the calls for his
resignation. The means are diverse: in-depth briefings with newspaper
columnists; meetings of the Olmerts with cabinet ministers and their spouse;
a "rare" Channel 2 interview with Aliza Olmert, the prime minister's wife;
and of course the visit by U.S. President George W. Bush on the eve of the
report's publication. It may also be necessary to organize a precise leak to
the foreign press that will finally reveal what the Israel Air Force did in
Syria on September 6. Already now, in the wake of the Annapolis conference,
large parts of the political left appear to be persuaded. Forget about the
events of the Saluki Valley in southern Lebanon. Olmert is the new etrog.

Politically, the ministers and MKs are united in their praise of the prime
minister's performance. This week he pushed through the budget without
visible effort and on Wednesday he declared that he has no intention of
resigning in the wake of the Winograd Committee report. It is still hard to
see whether this proficiency will ultimately be translated into votes as
well. If so, it will be a genuine political miracle, equal to the return of
Ariel Sharon as prime minister 19 years after the first Lebanon War.
Anything is possible, but one group, at least, will probably find it hard to
vote for Olmert after the events of the last 60 hours in Lebanon are fully
revealed: the parents of soldiers who are still serving in both the regular
and the career army.

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