Analyze This: D?j? vu for Olmert?

Goals unclear, home front is not ready. Ring any bells?

Olmert nailbiting 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Olmert nailbiting 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One thing Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i has never been accused of is rushing his words. One of the more deliberate speakers in Israeli politics, he is one of the least likely candidates to be caught shooting from the hip or making a slip of the tongue. Nor is it technically correct that he did so, when he told Army Radio on Friday that by continuing their stepped-up attacks on Sderot and Ashkelon, the Palestinians would be "bringing upon themselves a greater 'shoah' because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate, whether in air strikes or on the ground." It is Reuters's grievous error to have mistranslated the word "shoah" as "Holocaust" (referred to in Hebrew as Ha'shoah), the carelessness of the international media to have picked it up, and the cynicism of Israel's enemies to exploit it as a rhetorical weapon. Still, Vilna'i would have done better not to have uttered any kind of word even remotely connected with those associations, when there is no shortage of other expressions he could have more appropriately used in that context. It's a small point, but perhaps a telling one. A degree of carelessness while making such comments to the media is nothing new here; in fact, it has a far too familiar ring to it, as do the rockets and missiles continuing to rain down on Israeli communities as the IDF relies primarily on air power to halt (so far unsuccessfully) that fire. As do the reports of Israeli communities not being fully prepared for a long expected aerial attack - as Ashkelon clearly wasn't the last few days when it became evident its "Color Red" alert system could not be heard throughout the city, and emergency medical facilities were not adequately prepared. As does an operation that, because its specific goals are still unclear - or at least have not been adequately articulated to the Israeli public and international community - it is difficult to judge whether it is thus far worth the price being paid in both the loss of our soldiers and the civilian casualties on the other side. The purpose of the current operation is, of course, to stop the current wave of rockets and missiles being fired from Gaza. There are only two realistically possible ways this is going to happen under present circumstances: Hamas is hit with so much force that it takes a strategic decision to temporarily end the barrage from Gaza, whether or not in the context of a "cease-fire," or the IDF at least temporarily reoccupies parts of Gaza until a more permanent arrangement is crafted that enables the Palestinian Authority, or an international force, or some kind of combination of the two, to take control there back from Hamas. Right now, though, the government has neither ordered the kind of major IDF push that would bring sufficient enough force against Hamas to bring it around to the first option, nor seems engaged in the kind of high-level diplomacy with the Palestinians or international community that might enable the second to develop. Given the nature of the threat Israel now faces in the South, with Kassam and Grad launching squads operating while deeply entrenched in Palestinian neighborhoods, some civilian casualties in Gaza are likely unavoidable, as are losses among our own troops. But the Olmert government cannot simply maintain the current level of its engagement in Gaza if Kassams continue to rain down on Sderot and Grads in Ashkelon. For one thing, the Israeli public will surely not allow this after the trauma of the Second Lebanon War. The hold put on efforts to topple the Olmert government during the summer of 2006 for the sake of national unity during wartime surely won't apply this time around, and if protests against its policy begin to flower in the next few weeks, the current strains in the coalition may well become gaping cracks that shatter its political foundation. For that not to happen, the prime minister and his government must take charge of the situation in a way that hasn't been evident until now. In retrospect, Olmert's decision to spend an entire working week in Japan now looks like the same kind of failure to grasp the full gravity of the situation facing the country that was condemned so graphically by the Winograd Report. To make up for lost time, he and his cabinet must act quickly to take hold of the situation in and around Gaza before it develops into fodder for the next committee of inquiry. This may well mean calling up more troops; dramatically increasing the scope of IDF operations in Gaza, allocating the resources needed to carry out the necessary immediate defensive measures for Ashkelon; delivering a clear, well-articulated set of messages about the justification and goals of the military measures being taken and setting up an emergency communications center to deliver them effectively to both the local and foreign media; and initiating a round of the highest-level diplomacy to impress on the international community the gravity of the threat facing Israel. At the very least, though, it means the prime minister getting on the air and telling the citizens of Sderot and Ashkelon, the Israeli people, and the rest of the world, just exactly what he intends to do about the present situation - while he still has the chance to do so.