But the kidnapping this week of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants and the ground invasion of Gaza it has triggered have undercut the plan the Prime Minister placed at the center of his election campaign and which he has now made his main policy goal. For months, Olmert deflected calls within the defense establishment for a more vigorous response to the hundreds of rockets that Palestinian militants have been firing from Gaza into Israel. With the makeshift rockets causing more psychological than physical damage, he could afford to ignore growing public pressure for him to respond.
But that all changed in the pre-dawn hours of June 24, when Palestinian militants belonging to Hamas and two other small armed groups crawled through a 300-metre tunnel they had dug under the Gaza border, exited on the Israeli side and opened fire on soldiers at an army post. After attacking a tank with rockets and killing two soldiers, militants blew a hole in the border fence and disappeared back into Gaza with 19-year-old Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit.
For the first 72 hours, Olmert worked the diplomatic channels, hoping that international pressure on the Palestinians would secure Shalit's release. When it did not, he ordered the first major Israeli ground operation in Gaza since the pullout 10 months ago.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Israeli warplanes targeted the main power station in Gaza, knocking out electricity in the southern part of the strip. The pilots then turned their attention on several bridges in southern Gaza, rendering them impassable in an attempt to prevent the soldier's captors from moving him around the strip.
A short while later, thousands of Israeli troops and armored vehicles poured into Gaza, taking over the airport and setting up positions about two kilometres inside the strip, around the town of Rafah. At the northern tip of Gaza, thousands more Israeli troops sat waiting for the order to move. Their mission: to stop the firing of rockets by militants into Israel.
In the West Bank, troops swooped overnight Wednesday on dozens of Hamas officials, arresting a total of eight ministers and 20 lawmakers, for what Israel said was their involvement in a "terrorist organization."
But matters got worse for Olmert that night when the body of a teenage settler was found buried near Ramallah with a gunshot wound to the head. Eliyahu Asheri, 18, from the West Bank settlement of Itamar near Nablus, had been missing since Sunday. The Popular Resistance Committees, a small armed group that also participated in the raid on the Israel-Gaza border, said it had kidnapped him. After the body was found, Israeli officials said Asheri had been killed shortly after being snatched.
The re-invasion of a part of Gaza has not brought international opprobrium, possibly because with Israel no longer in the strip, the attack on the army post was seen as a violation of Israel's sovereignty rather than a legitimate act of resistance to occupation. For now, that will provide Olmert with some diplomatic leeway. But the longer Israel remains in Gaza, the louder international criticism will become.
At home, some defense commentators are already beginning to ask why Israel went into Gaza at all. Was it out of a sense of impotence and frustration? Or out of a need to restore wounded pride, having been humiliated by Palestinian militants? And does the Israeli leader have an effective exit strategy?
The stated goal of the military operation is to pressure the Palestinian population with the hope this will turn up the heat on the militant groups holding the soldier, and force them to release him. Based on past experience, especially in Lebanon where Israel launched two large offensives in the 1990s aimed at pressuring the local population into stopping Hezbollah from carrying out attacks, this strategy is unlikely to result in the release of the kidnapped soldier.
Olmert has repeatedly refused to negotiate with Shalit's captors, who have demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in exchange for his release.
While Israel has negotiated the release of soldiers and citizens who were held captive in Lebanon, it has tended not to negotiate with Hamas militants who have kidnapped Israeli soldiers. In the most well-known kidnapping case, Nachshon Waxman, a young soldier, was killed in October 1994 by his captors as Israeli commandos stormed the West Bank house where he was being held.
But Olmert's biggest headache could come once the military operation winds down and he returns to his plan for a unilateral withdrawal. According to the plan, Israel will dismantle isolated settlements in the West Bank and withdraw from some 90 percent of the territory, while holding onto large settlement blocs. The massive separation barrier under construction in the West Bank will serve as the temporary border between Israel and the Palestinians.
What drives the plan is the belief prevalent among many Israelis that there is no viable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, and a demographic logic positing that if Israel does not relinquish the occupied territories, Jews will ultimately become a minority and Arabs a majority because of their higher growth rate. If Israel reaches the demographic tipping point, Olmert has said, it will ultimately mean the end of the state as Jewish and democratic.
But the roar of the rockets and Hamas threats of more kidnappings are a far more immediate threat for Israelis than the distant spectre of demographic oblivion.
Hardline lawmakers who opposed the pullout from Gaza, but have struggled to counter the demographic argument, have been pointing to the almost daily volleys of rockets being launched into Israel as evidence of the folly of unilateral withdrawal. The ground offensive launched by Olmert will further bolster their claims among the public that Israel cannot counter Palestinian attacks if it is not located inside the territories from where they are being launched.
The Israeli leader also appears to be losing the public. A poll published on June 9 showed 56 percent of Israelis opposed his West Bank pullout plan, while only 37 percent supported it. The ongoing rocket fire, the attack on the army post and the abduction of a soldier will not help turn those figures around.
Rather, it will plant more doubt in the minds of Israelis over the wisdom of a go-it-alone pullout plan that leaves armed Palestinian militants at the doorstep of Israel's major population centers.
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June 29, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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