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Had he known how things were going to turn out, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would not have gone to war against Hizbullah last summer, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit claimed on Wednesday.
In hindsight, Sheetrit said, the prime minister would have taken more time before ordering the military response - to make sure the army was ready, and to give some room for the possibility of kidnapped soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev being returned, among other reasons.
The interior minister's assertions contrast starkly with Olmert's concerted defense of the rapid resort to conflict and of the results of the war, which the prime minister has repeatedly insisted produced far more favorable consequences than many of his countrymen and women have been willing to acknowledge.
Sheetrit was speaking at a panel debate organized by the INFO forum at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem, along with Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Likud Knesset member Yuval Steinitz.
The debate was entitled, "The Israeli Political Horizon," and addressing his own party's political horizon, Sheetrit said bluntly that if elections were held today, Kadima would be "deleted."
He said Olmert had until the end of 2008 to both salvage Kadima's fortunes and to maximize what he perceived as a genuine peacemaking opportunity. By the end of next year, said Sheetrit, Olmert needed "to make history," or else he would "be history."
Sheetrit said he had left the Likud because he wanted to make peace, and that this was what Olmert now had to set about doing.
Since his positions seemed generally akin to those of Tamir, alongside him, Sheetrit was asked what were the differences between Kadima and Labor. He responded that there didn't "have to be [major] differences" between parties and asserted that the gulf between Republicans and Democrats in the US wasn't all that great, but he firmly ruled out any notion of a Labor-Kadima merger.
Tamir expressed enthusiasm for the latest Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic contacts, and indicated that so long as Olmert was making an effort to move such contacts forward Labor would not abandon the coalition.
She said she hoped that concrete progress would also prompt a rethink among Palestinians in Gaza who had supported Hamas, bolstering support for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and a more moderate Palestinian mindset.
Steinitz was witheringly critical of what he warned was sometimes delusional thinking about the prospects for progress. He stressed that the Likud passionately sought peace, and noted that he himself had initially backed the notion of disengaging from Gaza. What was required for real progress, he said, however, was a Palestinian partner willing and able to quash terrorism and to live up to its commitments. And no such partner existed at present, he said.
Steinitz, a senior member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, also said the day was drawing near when Israel would have to carry out a major military operation in Gaza, similar to 2002's "Operation Defensive Shield" in the West Bank, to counter Hamas's military buildup and protect Sderot and other Israeli cities from rocket attack.
Both Tamir and Sheetrit said no such operation was contemplated, and Sheetrit said he favored a continuation of "pinpoint" operations against Hamas and other terror cells.
Tamir said the lack of definitive success in last summer's war had underlined both the "limits of military power" and the imperative for progress toward peace.
Steinitz countered that Israel's military might was crucial to its well-being and a central component in encouraging movement toward peace.
Turning to Wednesday's evacuation of settler families from Hebron and the refusal of some soldiers to have any involvement in the operation, all three speakers unreservedly condemned the refusal of orders by soldiers for ideological reasons and urged the prosecution of offenders.
Sheetrit said illegal settlers should be evicted right away, before they had time to organize any defense against removal, and that the same applied to the dozens of illegal settlements in the West Bank, which he said should have been removed without delay.
Tamir said that the tearing of the social fabric as emblemized by soldiers refusing orders was more troubling that any external challenge. A collapse of internal "social cohesion," she said, was the most worrying threat to Israel.