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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The easiest part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Katyusha-traumatized Kiryat Shmona on Monday was ruling out negotiations with Syria, an idea backed earlier in the day by Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter.
The most difficult part was hearing complaints about how his government managed the war by residents embittered by the month-long ordeal.
"I am the last person who will say I want to negotiate with Syria," Olmert said in a meeting with Kiryat Shmona city councilmen, in response to Dichter's comments on Army Radio Monday morning. Dichter said he would be willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for real peace with Syria.
Olmert said Syria "is the single most aggressive member of the axis of evil," adding that the rockets that hit Kiryat Shmona over the past month came from Syria.
"When Syria stops supporting terrorism, when it stops giving missiles to terror organizations, then we will be happy to negotiate with them," he said.
Israel is, however, sending signals to the Lebanese government via intermediaries that it is interested in opening peace talks, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), said, "Any diplomatic initiative is preferred over war, whether in Syria or Lebanon."
"With regard to Lebanon, conditions are even more welcoming than they are with Syria," he said. "Lebanon can today begin talks with Israel without the Syrians."
Dichter said negotiations with Syria were "legitimate," adding: "If there is someone to talk to on the other side, we should talk. Israel can initiate this or turn to a third party."
"We have paid similar territorial concessions in the past when we signed peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt," he said.
Olmert, who only Sunday asked his cabinet ministers to refrain from talking about either war or peace with Syria because the comments might be misunderstood by the other side, said, "I recommend not getting carried away with any false hopes. We are not going into any adventure when the other side sponsors terror."
Olmert said Israel would not enter talks with Syria "until basic steps are taken which can be the basis for any negotiations."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also dismissed the idea of negotiations with Syria during talks she held with visiting UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. According to her office, Livni told Roed-Larsen that she feared the Syrians might misinterpret statements like Diskin's as a sign of weakness instead of strength.
The Syrians, she said, needed to comply with the decisions of the international community, and the international community needed to continue demanding that Damascus stop supporting terrorism. She conveyed a similar message to visiting Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Rudolf Bot.
But it was less Syria, and more the way the war was handled, that was on the minds of the Kiryat Shmona Municipal Council members who met with Olmert.
"It is an understatement to say the residents here are very angry," said Yigal Buzaglo, a councilman. "People here were abandoned. I ask you, Mr. Prime Minister, where were you? Why didn't you worry about us?"
Another councilman, Yona Fartok, said he had never witnessed such poverty and humiliation.
"It looked just like New Orleans," he said. "Suddenly you see how weak the city is. Stop showing us disrespect. Why are army bases moving to the South and not to the North? Where are you leading us?"
Michel Ben-Shimon said it was "inconceivable that people were not evacuated during the whole war because there wasn't money."
The councilmen demanded the establishment of a state commission of inquiry.
Hermon Regional Council head Benny Ben-Muvhar said that if it were not for the external help he received, the situation in his regional council would have been much worse.
"The fire fighting unit in our council was active only because of donations we received," he said.
Olmert listened and then defended his government, saying it had only been in power for two months when the war broke out. The fighting "was a wake-up call that allows us to defend ourselves better," he said.
Regarding calls for a commission of inquiry, Olmert said Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz would soon recommend the nature of the committee to be established.
"I would rather focus on the future than the past," he said. "This is why I came here today. I promise you that a commission will be established and we will know how to learn the necessary lessons."
Olmert said he would not take part in a ritual of "self-flagellation or turning the IDF into a punching bag."
"Who is the IDF?" he asked. "They are our children and our people. Who are the officers if not our best sons, headed by the chief of General Staff. What shall we do with them, put them in a line and slap them so they can't prepare for the future, but so we can come to them again in the future with complaints?"
Olmert pinned some of the blame for Israel's war with Hizbullah on his predecessors, saying they had not responded in time to the dangers Hizbullah posed.
"We knew for years that there was a great danger, but for some reason we didn't translate that understanding into action, like we just did," he said. "We knew what Iran was doing, what Syria was doing, in arming Hizbullah, but we acted as if we didn't know."