Analysis: When the country feels vulnerable, the gov't acts

Barak knows that if he wants to be PM again, he must provide southerners with a sense of security.

Sderot shelter 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Sderot shelter 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will return from Japan on Friday to a country feeling increasingly insecure and vulnerable as a result of the Kassam and Grad barrages that have now squarely placed Ashkelon inside the daily rocket attack equation. And in this small country, when the nation feels insecure and vulnerable, the government often has little choice but to act. The country felt insecure and vulnerable after the suicide bombings of 2001 and 2002, and the government okayed Operation Defensive Shield, as well as the construction of the security barrier. The country felt insecure and vulnerable following the wave of kidnappings in the summer of 2006 that included the attempted kidnapping of two girls north of Jerusalem, the kidnapping and murder of Eliahu Asheri, the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit and then two weeks later of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. As a result, the government acted and launched a war against Hizbullah. A return now of that sense of insecurity following the attacks on Ashkelon, and no longer "only" on Sderot and neighboring kibbutzim, will make restraint more difficult for Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. More so, in fact, for Barak than Olmert. Olmert, in meetings with his senior ministers, is likely to take a more "measured" approach, still stinging from public criticism following the Second Lebanon War that he acted impulsively and without proper planning or consultations. He will not want to repeat the same mistakes. Also, Olmert - more than Barak - is hearing US and European officials calling for Israel not to "overreact" and not to launch a "disproportionate" reprisal. With US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due here on Tuesday, he will not want to greet her with a mini-war raging in the Gaza Strip. But Barak, who is in a very precarious political position, is carrying different baggage. In the final analysis, the goal of the political comeback he launched last year was not to serve as defense minister under Olmert, but rather to sit again one day soon in the prime minister's chair. One of his hopes in taking the Defense Ministry portfolio was that it would enable him to prove himself and thereby win the next election. The polls, however, are showing that things are not necessarily going as planned, and he continues to lag far behind Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu. His time to prove himself is now, and he must be concerned that the public will ask how they are benefiting from having him in the Defense Ministry if Hamas can fire with impunity on Sderot and Ashkelon. Barak knows that every day that passes in this situation sets his political ambitions back, and that if he ever again wants to be prime minister, he will need to provide the residents of the South with a sense of security. One thing he is unlikely to do is play into Hamas's hands and initiate a large-scale ground invasion to reoccupy Gaza. While there is a need to secure the border between Egypt and Gaza, and while he may penetrate into Gaza in order to send a message and more effectively strike out at Hamas's infrastructure and institutions, there is little enthusiasm in either the defense establishment or the Prime Minister's Office about going in to reoccupy Gaza. Indeed, a decision by the government to reoccupy Gaza would be tantamount to admitting that disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was a bad mistake and miscalculation, something neither Kadima nor Labor has ever done, nor something they will likely do with the possibility of elections looming in the not-too-distant future. Ironically, the party at this moment most eager to see the IDF march back into Gaza is Fatah, which would like nothing more than for Israel to do its dirty work: smash Hamas and then hand Gaza to Fatah on a silver platter. The Israeli public, however, will have little stomach for losing the lives of its soldiers in order to deliver Gaza to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. This too is a political consideration that will weigh on Barak's mind when deciding exactly what tactics, short of an all-out invasion and reoccupation, will bring a modicum of normality back to the South.