Pressure mounts in coalition for PM to up the stakes

Vilna'i's 'shoah' comment misinterpreted as warning of a holocaust in Gaza Strip.

gaza 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
gaza 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Pressure mounted on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the weekend to address the recent escalation of violence with the Gaza Strip, as key coalition partners prepared to weigh his statement's in Sunday's cabinet meeting against their continued participation in the government. "Unless Olmert finds a way to decisively address this situation, he will find his coalition unable to support him any longer," said a key adviser to Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak. "He was away [in Japan] while this whole thing ignited. Sunday is his chance to make a strong statement and prove that he can secure the safety of this country." Barak, who visited a home that was hit by a rocket in Ashkelon on Friday, fell short of calling for a large IDF ground operation in the Gaza Strip. "Hamas is directly responsible for the current situation and will be the one to bear the cost of our response," he said, adding that "an Israeli response is necessary and will be carried out." Sources close to Barak said he was prepared to take decisive action, but would need to consult with the prime minister and other key cabinet members. Forty-six Palestinians and two IDF soldiers were killed in Gaza over the weekend, while dozens of rockets struck communities such as Sderot and Ashkelon that border Gaza. Shas's chairman Eli Yishai and Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen repeated their calls for a major military operation. "The party expects a decisive statement from the prime minister on this issue," a Shas adviser said. While the party supported the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank, Shas would not support a "weak or moderate" stance on the Gaza Strip, the adviser said. "The defense minister has not made any conclusive remarks on this. It is up to the prime minister to push for a strong response now," the Shas adviser said. It was the Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i (Labor) who stole headlines this weekend, with his statement that 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." The Hebrew word "shoah" most often refers to the Holocaust, but Israelis use it to describe all sorts of disasters. Vilna'i spokesman Eitan Ginzburg said the minister never intended it as a reference to the Holocaust but used the word to denote a disaster. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal both referred to Vilna'i's comments this weekend. Abbas labeled Israel's actions to counter the Gazan rockets as "worse than the Holocaust." "Unfortunately, Israel is using a term these days that many avoid using for 60 years," Abbas said. He said Israel's response to the attacks on western Negev communities and Ashkelon was too severe, and constituted unacceptable retaliation to the firing of rockets and missiles. "Israeli actions in Gaza since Wednesday are the real Holocaust," Mashaal told reporters in Damascus on Saturday. He accused Israel of "exaggerating the Holocaust and using it to blackmail the world." Abbas was "providing a cover for the Israeli Holocaust" in Gaza by claiming that Hamas was sheltering al-Qaida terrorists, Mashaal said. He also blamed European countries, without naming them, for keeping silent on Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians. "It is shameful that some Western countries try to clear their conscience with regards to the Holocaust that took place on their own land by being silent on the real Holocaust being committed by Israel against the Palestinian people," he said. MKs from Arab parties slammed the government for its current actions in Gaza, with Balad Party activists holding rallies at traffic intersections throughout the Galilee and Negev. "The attack on Gaza is an attack on the entire Palestinian people," Balad chairman MK Jamal Zahalka said. MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List) demanded that the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee hold an urgent meeting on "the crimes of the occupation in Gaza and the mass killing of civilians. Meanwhile, several Israel Beiteinu lawmakers - including party head Avigdor Lieberman - came to Sderot on Friday. The MKs toured the city and spent the weekend at a nearby kibbutz to show solidarity with area residents. Lieberman called on Olmert to hold a security cabinet meeting in Sderot devoted to the situation in southern Israel. MK Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima), chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he would convene a special meeting on the issue. "The State of Israel must make a strategic decision to order the IDF to prepare quickly to topple the Hamas terrorist regime and take over all the areas from which rockets are fired on Israel," Hanegbi said. The IDF should prepare to remain in those areas for years, he said. Likud Party whip and committee member MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) said his party would back an invasion of Gaza. "There is no doubt that the security response needs to include a ground component," said Sa'ar. He added that the IDF would likely need to "re-take" the area in the northern Gaza Strip from which militants fire rockets at Israel. He did not say how long Israeli forces would need to remain there. Meretz Party Chairman MK Yossi Beilin advocated a diplomatic approach. "My solution is to reach a cease-fire with Hamas," said Beilin, who stressed that Israel should also continue to negotiate with the PA. He said Hamas has expressed interest in a truce over the last few weeks and that it was irresponsible of Israel not to respond to the requests. "There have been at least two requests from Hamas, via a third party, to accept a cease-fire," Beilin said. AP contributed to this report