The mutters and whispering are still barely audible but more and more politicians and officials are talking about it behind closed doors. It's not the kind of thing one wants to say out loud during a period of national crisis and personal tragedy and besides, Labor MK Matan Vilna'i was forced to make a groveling apology after daring to utter at the start of this awful week that "we are all paying now for Defense Minister Amir Peretz's lack of experience." But if the weekend passes without a major breakthrough in the Gilad Shalit capture saga, the discontent will be heard loud and clear.
What are they complaining about? Talk is of inexperience and basic weakness not only of the two leaders, but also of the teams of aides and advisers surrounding them and who it's said have proven incapable of providing the kind of executive support needed during a crisis. But where have they gone wrong?
It's hard to pinpoint one specific misstep made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Peretz since the Kerem Shalom attack on Sunday morning. They've gone through all the motions, pressure through diplomatic channels, threats both subtle and blunt, amassing of forces, a limited incursion, buzzing Assad's palace, wholesale arrests of Hamas leaders and now back to diplomatic pressure again.
None of these steps in themselves are unreasonable, and they're all in line with the recommendations of the diplomatic and defense establishments. What's missing is a sense of direction, a connecting thread between all these actions. The growing feeling of unease is caused by the lack of cohesiveness, the absence of something that looks like an overall strategy.
And no less important than the atmosphere in the higher levels of government and military, that feeling is mirrored in the public. Olmert and Peretz have yet to give a media interview or press conference in which they will frankly lay out their objectives. Instead the public is provided with disjointed statements and oblique speeches in which mixed messages, especially from Peretz, are conveyed.
No one is answering the obvious questions: What's the connection between the limited operation in the south of the Gaza Strip and Gilad's kidnapping and if there is none, what exactly is Golani doing there? Has Israel decided to dismantle the Palestinian government and permanently take out the Hamas leadership, or will the legislators be released if a diplomatic solution is reached? And is Israel contemplating an attack on Syrian territory or was the flypast in Latakia simply aimed at reminding us that the IAF is still capable of getting something right without killing civilians?
Instead of giving us straight answers, the government sends to the media its two smoothest operators, ministers Haim Ramon and Roni Bar-On. Both gave bland and brash interviews at the same time on the two main radio news shows, deflecting any possible criticism, exuding self-righteousness and saying very little of substance.
"No" said Bar-On, "of course we don't regret disengaging from Gaza, just imagine what it would be like if all this would be happening with 8,000 settlers still inside the Strip." Ramon refuses to hear any criticism of the realignment plan and claims that this week's events only go to show that Israel has no option but to act unilaterally.
This government was elected due to the public credit accruing to Sharon from disengagement and its only raison d'etre is realignment. The current crisis is a double test for the Olmert team. Not only will they have to prove that despite inexperience they can handle an emergency situation; they will also have to convince the Knesset, the generals and most of all the public, that even now, leaving Gaza was worthwhile and it still makes sense going through all that again in the West Bank.