Cracks begin to show in unified front

As news of the heavy toll in the fighting at Bint Jbail spread through the Knesset Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attempted to preempt criticism by asking MKs on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to stay "united in this difficult time." "I am asking that you give your full support," Olmert told the lawmakers. "The Israeli public must know that we are united. The home front is strong, I am in awe of its strength and support." Olmert said it was clear from the start that the operations in Lebanon would not be easy and that Israel would have to pay a heavy price. He said the offensive would continue as long as the home front gave it its full support. But Meretz MK Ran Cohen told the prime minister he was "drowning in blood in southern Lebanon, exactly as Hizbullah had intended." Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah "is directing you according to his own timetable of provocation," Cohen told Olmert. Government sources acknowledged that "cracks" were starting to appear in the support for the IDF operations in Lebanon. Labor MK Avishay Braverman called for an urgent meeting of his party's faction with Defense Minister Amir Peretz to discuss the fighting in Lebanon. Braverman's spokeswoman said he wanted more details about what was going on in the war, to find out what kind of international peacekeeping force might be created and to ensure that casualties would be minimized and the offensive completed as soon as possible. "We cannot allow a diplomatic agreement to be reached without a prior discussion on its ramifications and about whether an international force will be able to keep Israeli citizens safe," Braverman said. Gush Shalom, the Women's Coalition for Peace and other left-wing organizations behind recent demonstrations against the IDF said that they intended to erect a protest tent in Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin on Thursday. They are planning a protest rally there on Saturday and are hoping that Meretz MKs attend. Until now, Meretz MKs have avoided such demonstrations because the party deemed them too extremist, but former party MKs Shulamit Aloni and Naomi Chazan attended a protest rally last Saturday night. Meretz officials said no legislators from the party would come to the protest unless its messages were toned down. Last Thursday, the Meretz executive board decided to oppose sending ground forces into Lebanon, fearing that the IDF's casualties would be too heavy. However the ability of the party's lawmakers to express opposition to continued fighting in Lebanon is limited, because no motions of no-confidence in the government can be filed during the summer recess. Peace Now, which led the opposition to the first Lebanon War, intends to continue to refrain from criticizing the current operations. "As painful as it is, even a large number of soldiers killed is not what would make us start protesting against the war," Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer said. "We are still not acting against the war. We don't want to be responsible for damaging the morale of the nation. The decision about whether to call for a cease-fire depends on the conditions of the cease-fire and whether the security of Israeli citizens would be guaranteed." Science and Culture Minister Ophir Paz-Pines, who is considered the most dovish cabinet minister, said in closed forums that he believed it was still important to preserve a national consensus on the operations in the North. He said that a consensus favored sending a limited number of soldiers into Lebanon for brief incursions, but opposed conquering southern Lebanon beyond a narrow security zone. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud), who is normally Olmert's harshest critic, echoed the prime minister's call for unity, telling reporters outside the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting that the government must be given full support by politicians from across the political spectrum. But Netanyahu told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that will be published on Friday that after the fighting is over, he expects the public to assess whether the Likud was right about unilateral disengagement, and that this would help increase the party's support.