Comment: Talking tough, all over again [pg.4]

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there they go again. Ehud Olmert, at his press conference following his Thursday meeting with President Moshe Katsav, threatened to take extremely harsh measures against the Palestinians in light of the rash of shootings and stabbings in the West Bank and Jerusalem, bringing to mind similar ultimatums and threats issued in the past by both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. "Last night, I ordered all security elements in Israel to use special measures to deal with the first signs of terrorist activity, which we are seeing in various areas," Olmert said. "We will use an iron fist against any attempt to resume terrorist activity wherever the first signs of such activity may be seen, in the Gaza Strip, as well as in Judea and Samaria. We will use far-reaching measures on all roads and highways in sensitive areas. We will not hesitate to take any step that may be necessary to deny terrorist organizations' attempts to resume terrorist activities that could harm the citizens of Israel." Amen... but. His comments can't be divorced from the fall Kadima is starting to take in the polls, and Olmert's obvious need to show an increasingly skeptical electorate that, like Sharon, he too can be tough on terror. But these are the types of words we have heard too often over the course of the last five-plus years of terrorism. In fact, these words bring to mind not only Barak and Sharon, but also US comedian Jackie Mason. In one of his best routines, he told the tale of a Jewish guy who got in a fight and then went and told his friend about it. "One more woid (word), just one more woid, and I would have killed him," Mason quoted the Jew as saying. And then came the punch line: "For 2,000 years the world has been waiting to hear that woid. What's that woid!" Both Barak and Sharon threatened all kinds of force if terror continued. Barak made threats in October 2000, giving the Palestinians 48 hours to end the terrorism "or else." Well, the terrorism didn't end, and Barak bombed empty buildings. Sharon warned before disengagement from the Gaza Strip that if terrorism continued after the withdrawal, Israel would have all the international legitimacy to use a degree of force it hadn't used in the past. Well, the Kassam fire didn't stop, and Israel still hasn't leveled Gaza in retaliation. Which doesn't mean that Gaza should be leveled in retaliation, but then don't leave the impression that you might if you are unable to follow up on the threat. Which is the course Olmert has now entered. Israel has not exactly been soft on the terrorists. Day in and day out, the IDF is engaged in pursing and arresting some terrorists, killing others. It is this type of round-the-clock offensive that has succeeded in bringing down the number of casualties from some 450 killed in 2002 to some 65 in 2005. It's not as if Israel has just sat back and done nothing. What it hasn't done, however, has been that one big, dramatic, showcase action that would forever change the playing field. It hasn't taken that step for various reasons: Perhaps that step doesn't exist, perhaps that move would complicate the actions of other potential actors. For instance, how would a major Israeli incursion into Gaza to stop the Kassams affect some US action down the line in Iran. In this region, everything is interconnected, and - as US counterterrorism coordinator Henry Crumpton made clear in an interview last week - an action in Gaza could have an impact on events "three or four actors removed." The problem with tough talk like Olmert's is that it creates rising expectations of something new in the works that will change everything. But what if for a variety of reasons this new modus operandi does not emerge? Then we are left only with an empty threat, which is no way to deter the enemy. Better to act quietly and continuously, as Israel has been doing since Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002, than to issue threats or make promises that may be impossible to keep.