PM: War improved strategic position

Olmert, Abbas to meet next week; security cabinet to discuss Gaza situation.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a spirited defense of the Second Lebanon War in the Knesset on Tuesday, saying it brought unprecedented quiet to the North, even as the security cabinet was posed to meet Wednesday and discuss recipes for bringing quiet to the south. Speaking at a special Knesset session called to discuss his refusal to resign after the harshly critical findings of the Winograd Committee's partial report last month, Olmert said he had not gone to war "hastily," and that he "believed then, as I believe now, that this was the necessary decision under the circumstances." "I didn't avoid responsibility, and I recognize the failures and successes of the war," he said. Without saying so in as many words, Olmert took issue with two key conclusions of the Winograd report: that his stating the return of captive reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev was one of the objectives of the war was a mistake; and that the decision to go to war had been made hastily and without proper preparation or forethought. Olmert said that Israel could not have expected the international community to make the soldiers' return a top priority if Israel had not made it one, and he said he had weighed - and held consultations - on what Israel's response to their kidnapping would be soon after he took over for Ariel Sharon as acting Prime Minister in January 2006. "I weighed carefully, in a number of discussions over a number of months, what our response would be long before it happened," he said. Facing a skeptical Knesset, a public disappointed in the way the war was waged, and a critical Winograd Committee report, Olmert enlisted outside sources to bolster his argument - one that he has repeated a number of times since the end of the war - that Israel's strategic position has improved dramatically as a result of the fighting. Among those he quoted was UNIFIL commander Maj.-Gen. Claudio Graziano, who said: "I want Israelis to understand that the situation in the North has changed." And he also referred to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who said that as a result of the war, Hizbullah had been banished from the northern border and that the group had suffered a "massive strategic defeat." Olmert quoted Friedman, saying "Lebanon is weaker, and Israel is stronger." Olmert reminded the Knesset, and the opposition now calling for his resignation, that they had given him across-the-board support. "You were all right to [acknowledge] the government's right to react strongly. The opposition was then at its best," said Olmert. He pointed out that opposition head Binyamin Netanyahu had told him at the outset of the war that he would have acted in the same way. Olmert remained defiant in the face of several MKs who had called on him to quit, saying that the Winograd report called to "implement the conclusions of the war but not for heads to roll." The prime minister said that there were "no easy wars and no victories without a price," adding that a decision to go to war was never easy but that the "price of the war was one worth paying." He also said the government was busy implementing the Winograd Committee's recommendations. The security cabinet meeting on Wednesday is one indication of this implementation, with the cabinet expected to discuss the ramifications of the current Gaza violence on Israel's northern border and in the West Bank. Following Olmert's speech, Netanyahu said that the aims of the war, which were described to him by the prime minister, had not been achieved since the reservists were still in captivity and Hizbullah had not been disarmed. He said that Israel had lost its deterrence and that it was now faced with enemies on three fronts who were continuously rearming. "The nation has told the government something very simple. You failed, take responsibility and go home," said Netanyahu. The Winograd report called for more extensive policy discussions, something that the security cabinet - which has not met regularly for months - is mandated to do. Government officials said that Olmert would reinstate regular Wednesday afternoon meetings. The security cabinet was not expected to make any operative changes in its current Gaza Strip policy, and defense officials - noting a sharp decline in Kassam fire - expressed cautious optimism Tuesday that the IDF's pinpoint operations against Hamas terror infrastructure were having an effect and would eventually reduce the number of rockets launched at Israel. Meanwhile, Olmert's office announced Tuesday that he would be meeting Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas next week, their first meeting since last April. When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was here at the end of March, the two men agreed to meet regularly, a plan derailed by the recent escalation of violence in Gaza. Rather than Rice coming here after that meeting, it is now expected that Olmert will travel to US shortly afterward for a meeting with President George W. Bush. Government officials say that the situation in Gaza will certainly dominate the Olmert-Abbas discussions, and that Olmert wants the talks because he believes it is better to have contacts with the Palestinians - even as the violence continues in the South - than to break them off. "Our lives are intertwined," one official said, "and it is not as if stopping the contacts would stop the rocket or terrorist attacks." Olmert is equally aware, the official said, that a meeting with Abbas would not stop the attacks, but he believes the contacts are important to show that Israel wants to move forward with the moderates, and "will not succumb to the extremists." Officials said that the talks, which Abbas said would take place a week from Thursday, would deal more with security issues, than "a political horizon," an issue very much on the agenda before violence erupted in Gaza. The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying the meeting would take place next week, but did not give an exact time or location. While all the previous Olmert-Abbas meetings have been held in Jerusalem, this one is likely to take place in Jericho. Two rockets, meanwhile, were fired at Israel on Tuesday without causing any wounded or damages. Defense officials claimed that the daily IAF air strikes and pinpointed ground raids were impairing Hamas's launch capabilities. Two weeks ago, when the Kassam onslaught began, Palestinians were firing close to 30 rockets a day. The IDF bombed two Hamas training camps on Tuesday - one in the northern Gaza Strip and one in the south. "The operations appear to be succeeding," a Southern Command source said. "Their rocket fire is more sporadic and less frequent. They are clearly under pressure." Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.