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(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went on a fiery offensive in Sunday's cabinet meeting, aggressively defending the "graduated and measured" IDF action in Gaza, telling Sderot officials to start showing leadership, and sticking up for last summer's Gaza disengagement.
In addition, he dismissed suggestions made Friday by his own Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter that Israel should consider releasing security prisoners to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Olmert rebuffed criticism that the IDF was not being tough enough in Gaza, saying the army would employ a number of different methods there.
"There is no intention to reoccupy Gaza," he said, "but there is a need for ground action." He added that Israel "will continue to act - to go in and come out as needed. There will not be only one mode of operation.
"It is clear this will be a long, complex war," Olmert said, adding that he did not want to set out a timetable for the operation.
Attacking those who are calling for quick action to "clear out Gaza," he said, "the easiest thing to do is to sit here, bang on the table and approve action." He said, however, that this ignored the fact that Israel needed to act with international legitimacy.
The prime minister pointed out that the IDF had been operating forcefully in Gaza for 13 days, causing dozens of Palestinian casualties and taking steps that had never been done before - such as striking at electric transformers and bridges - and that world reaction had not been overly critical. He said that this was because the government has acted in a "graduated and measured manner."
"It is possible to take actions like in a James Bond movie, and to lose the support of the international community," he said. "In order to preserve that support, things need to be done patiently and with level-headedness."
Olmert called on the leaders of Sderot and neighboring communities to "display leadership" and not only demand things from the government. He said these communities have received more economic incentives than any other region, and that because of those incentives, there were now more jobs in Sderot and its environs than there were workers.
"Courageous leaders need to explain this to the people, rather than only making demands on the government," he said.
Olmert rejected accusations that the government cared more about the threat faced by residents of Ashkelon than the situation in Sderot, saying, however, that the recent Kassam attacks on Ashkelon had altered the situation significantly because they had placed another 100,000 Israelis under threat.
Olmert also defended the disengagement from Gaza, saying that no one ever promised that withdrawing from Gaza would end the rocket attacks on Israel.
Olmert asked the ministers to imagine what the situation would be like if there were still 8,000 settlers inside Gaza. He said Israel would have had to allocate thousands of soldiers to protect the settlements, and that the rocket fire on Israel would still have continued, just as it did before disengagement.
Disengagement, he said, had given Israel greater military maneuverability and flexibility to act inside Gaza.
Olmert told the cabinet that last month he had considered a prisoner release as a confidence-building gesture before he was to hold a long-awaited meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. However, before the meeting came to pass, Shalit was kidnapped, and the initiative was withdrawn.
That prisoner release would have helped the "moderates," Olmert said. According to a participant in the meeting, he then banged on the table and said the ministers had to realize that "releasing Palestinian prisoners to Hamas would be the end of the moderates. It would send a signal to all the international players that Israel only knows how to talk after a kidnapping, and only with the extremists, not the moderates."
Olmert, in an obvious reference to Dichter, who on Friday alluded to the possibility of a prisoner's exchange, said the ministers needed to be very careful about what they said because Shalit's captors were monitoring their remarks very carefully.
"The other side that is holding Gilad Shalit is not primitive, and is following the reactions of the ministers and the government," he said. "They are well-versed on what is said here, and immediately translate these things into operative directives. I am in favor of you expressing yourselves, but be careful, coordinate what you say to the Internet, radio and television with the media adviser."
Defense Minister Amir Peretz also offered a spirited defense of the current military operation, coming under attack from ministers who said that the operation did not have well-defined goals, or that it was not aggressive enough.
Responding to ministers who called for more targeted killings of the terrorist leadership in Gaza, Peretz intimated that this could lead to the killing of Shalit.
"We need to take into consideration that there is now a new component in the equation - one of our soldiers, who is in Hamas's hands. If we do not take this into consideration before a targeted action at this time, we will not be fulfilling our jobs as ministers. We need to act with reason, not rashly, and in the right measure."
Peretz reacted to criticism that Israel had waited too long before going on the offensive in Gaza, saying that this operation was planned before Shalit's abduction two weeks ago and that Israel had been waiting for the right time to carry it out.
At the same time, he said, the kidnapping had enabled Israel to add additional operative elements to the planned operation - dividing the Gaza Strip, taking out bridges, and taking up positions at the airport overlooking Rafah.
Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of the IDF Intelligence Research Department, told the ministers that some 40 Palestinians, the majority of them armed men, have been killed since Israel went into northern Gaza Thursday night. Nevertheless, he said that Hamas's armed wing has not been significantly harmed, and that what they were worried about was Israel's next moves.
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