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The cabinet met in emergency session Wednesday night to approve military actions in the North, amid growing sentiment that the region was sliding toward war and that Hizbullah's morning attack necessitated a dramatic, widespread and painful response.
The ministers approved plans to push Hizbullah back from the northern border and place pressure on the Lebanese government to dismantle the Islamist organization, as called for under UN Security Council Resolution 1559.
Following the meeting, the cabinet issued a statement saying, "A new, complicated situation has been created that Israel is obliged to deal with." The statement said this new situation would include special preparations to deal with the possibility that "the enemy will try to cause damage to the home front."
Head of the Home Front Command, Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Gershon, was instructed to prepare for a possibility of a major bombardment of Israeli communities.
According to estimates, Hizbullah has thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, including 'hundreds' of Fajar 5 rockets that can reach Haifa and Hadera.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at a press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a few hours after learning of the attack that it was clear that as a result of this "act of war," Israel would respond in "an unequivocal fashion that will cause those who started this act of war to bear a very painful and far-reaching responsibility for their actions."
"I want to make it clear, this morning's events were not a terrorist attack but the action of a sovereign state that attacked Israel for no reason and without provocation," he said.
"The Lebanese government, of which Hizbullah is a member, is trying to undermine regional stability," Olmert said. "Lebanon is responsible and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions."
The ministers were briefed on the day's events, and were presented with military options which one government source characterized as "attacking Lebanon, attacking Syria, or attacking both."
Government officials said that Olmert decided to convene the full cabinet, rather than just the security cabinet, to increase the dramatic impact and give himself the widest possible domestic political legitimacy for his actions.
Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog told reporters after the meeting that Israel would respond in an "appropriate manner," but he did not elaborate. Herzog said, "It is clear to everyone that the responsibility rests on the Lebanese government's shoulders. It is a government that has Hizbullah ministers, and it knows well that Hizbullah is a terrorist organization that receives Iranian and Syrian sponsorship."
The ministers, according to government sources, had to first define the goals of the operation, and whether it would entail a widespread ground operation into Lebanon. Israel pulled its forces out of Lebanon in 2000.
Olmert said he was certain the response that would be approved would "be felt in the right places and with the necessary strength following the murderous provocation that came to Israel from Lebanese territory."
While placing responsibility for the attack squarely on Lebanon's shoulders, he made it clear that Syria would pay a price.
"Throughout the recent period, Syria has proven that it is a terrorist government," Olmert said. "It supports terrorism, it is a government that backs terrorism, it is a government that encourages the murderous actions both of terrorists located on its soil and those beyond it. Of course, there will have to be an appropriate preparation in order to deal with the conduct of the Syrian government."
Olmert, at the press conference with Koizumi, sounded very much as if he was putting the country on a war footing.
"The State of Israel and its citizens now stand in an hour of trial," Olmert said. "We have withstood difficult tests in the past, even more difficult and complex than these. We, the State of Israel, the entire nation, will know how to overcome those who are trying to hurt us."
Koizumi, who said he understood Israel's desire to exact "an eye for an eye," urged restraint.
Olmert responded that Israel's actions "will be very restrained, but will be very, very, very painful, as is necessitated by the reality."
Olmert was in continuous contact throughout the day with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and other security officials, and held high-level security consultations just prior to the cabinet meeting.
The prime minister said that he was too preoccupied with the security issues to deal with political questions and the proposal to form an emergency government that would include Likud and Israel Beiteinu.
"There will be a time and place for these [issues]," he said, "but not now." He was scheduled to brief Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu after the cabinet meeting.
On the diplomatic front, Foreign Ministry Tzipi Livni issued a statement saying that Israel has been attacked from Lebanon, and viewed Beirut as responsible for the day's "unprovoked aggression."
She said the attack was a result of Lebanon's failure to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and dismantle Hizbullah.
Livni drew a line from Iran through Syria and Hizbullah to Hamas. "There is an axis of terror and hate, created by Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas that wants to end any hope for peace. The world cannot let them succeed," she said.
The message Livni was sending to the international community was that Israel had no alternative "but to defend itself and its citizens. We also expect the international community to act." She spoke during the day with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
So far, diplomatic officials said, the international reaction had been satisfactory. Indicative of this was a statement issued by Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU. That statement called on Hizbullah to "unconditionally release the captured Israeli soldiers and cease all attacks on Israel."
The statement also said the Lebanese government "has a responsibility to prevent a deterioration of the situation. In this context, the presidency recalls the need for the Lebanese State to restore its sovereignty over the whole of its national territory and to exercise the sole rights to the use of force on that territory." The statement also called on all parties to exercise restraint.
Olmert heard about the attack in the morning while he was meeting in his office with Aviva and Noam Shalit, the parents of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, abducted by Hamas on June 25 at Kerem Shalom. Olmert's military secretary, Gadi Shamni, informed him of the incident, but it was not raised during the meeting.
Olmert's aides characterized the meeting with the Shalits as polite but "charged," with Olmert reiterating his opposition to a prisoner exchange, something that Noam Shalit has said he favored. It was Olmert's first meeting with the parents of the abducted soldier.
Olmert said at his press conference that Wednesday's capture of two more soldiers had not changed his position on a possible prisoner exchange.
"We have made it clear throughout that we will not give in to extortion and that we will not negotiate with terrorists regarding the lives of Israeli soldiers," he said. "This was true yesterday and it is true today as well."
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