In Olmert's absence, ministers and MKs feud over appropriate response

Disagreements over how to confront the expanding rocket attacks from Gaza on southwest Israeli communities polarized the already feuding coalition partners in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government Thursday. Tension between the Orthodox Shas Party and the center-left Labor Party has mushroomed in the prime minister's absence, MKs from both parties said. Olmert, who is heading home from Japan, has deployed several Kadima MKs to try and mediate. "There are a lot of difficult diplomatic decisions that need to be made when Olmert returns from Japan. The coalition will need to leave behind its squabbling and back him in order to secure the safety of this entire country," said a political aide to the prime minister. Many of those decisions relate to the ongoing rocket barrage in the South. "We are in a war which sometimes exacts a high cost, and sometimes does not," Olmert said Thursday. "We will continue fighting in order to end the danger to the residents of the south. This is a long process, and a painful one, and we haven't any magic formulas to solve this today. We are suffering painful blows, but are returning more painful blows." Shas MKs, meanwhile, urged a harsher line, and expressed disappointment at the relatively restrained remarks issued by Kadima MKs. "In case anyone hasn't realized it yet, we're in a state of war," said Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas), a resident of the southern city of Ashkelon and a member of the security cabinet. Shas has repeatedly called for a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. Shas leader and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai demanded that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee be convened to address the escalation. "The situation has been raised to a new level that we cannot ignore. We must convene for a deep and integrated discussion and present different alternatives [for a response,]" said Yishai. Sources close to Labor chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that he would not hesitate to take decisive action to stop the attacks, but that there were numerous "political considerations." These may include fending off criticism from the Likud that Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 opened the door for the Hamas takeover of the area. "As the only strong, left-wing party in the Knesset, there is a fear that if we acknowledge that giving land to the Palestinians is a mistake, we will have nothing left to campaign on in the next elections," said a senior Labor minister. "Our platform is based on moving the peace process with the Palestinians forward. We cannot give our enemies in the Knesset - the right-wing parties - more ammunition to say that previous concessions to the Palestinians were a mistake." Likud MKs emphasized that they have long called for a wide scale operation in Gaza, and that Olmert should not hesitate to "admit where he was wrong." "We have been telling Olmert what would happen in Gaza, and we knew the situation would only deteriorate the longer militants there were left to build up their forces," said MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud). Transportation Minister and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) slammed the government's response to the Kassam attacks. "We cannot continue to hesitate while we define different goals and we must not let terror continue to dictate the agenda," said Mofaz. A large-scale ground operation in the Gaza Strip would not put an end to Kassam rocket fire, argued Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima). "I am opposed to an operation [that includes] entering and taking over Gaza," Sheetrit said. "This is the wrong approach, and it won't lead us anywhere. We won't just go in and suddenly everything will be okay." Israel, he said, must rather go the way of upping targeted killings among the Hamas leadership. "We must not let anyone involved in the shooting stay alive," Sheetrit said. "I am opposed to hesitation and in favor of wiping out anyone who is in Hamas; from the military and political echelons, no matter who." Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter (Kadima) also rejected calls to reoccupy Gaza. "Whoever talks about entering and occupying the Gaza Strip, these are populist ideas which I don't connect to, and in my opinion, no intelligent person does either," he told reporters during a press conference at Sapir College, where an Israeli civilian was killed by Kassam fire on Wednesday. Just before Dichter's address Thursday, a Kassam exploded on the college campus, lightly wounding one of his guards. Dichter was not present at the time. Immigration Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri (Kadima), who accompanied Dichter on his Sderot tour, took a harsher line, saying: "The government will need to contend [with] and make difficult decisions. We are not far from the day in which we will have to go in and reoccupy all of Gaza."