Sunday, January 06, 2008

The First Missile

The Grad 122mm rocket that hit north of Ashkelon on Thursday Jan 3 marks a new page in the struggle against terrorism, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet on Sunday. Olmert said he would increase the army’s response to attacks in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli soldiers continued to operate in the Gaza strip on Sunday; one soldier was moderately injured and four others lightly injured in clashes with the Palestinians. Meanwhile Kassam rockets continue to fall in the Negev. Nine rockets fell on Saturday, and five more on Sunday. One Israeli was treated for shock.

The Israelis are still talking about a massive ground offensive in Gaza to halt the missile attacks, however veteran military men like former admiral and one time leader of the Labor Party as well as past Haifa Mayor Avraham Mitzna told an Israel radio interviewer that an invasion of Gaza would be a mistake.

Some Israelis take a very harsh stand. In a discussion with Israelis, Jerusalem Magazine was told the best solution was to warn the Palestinians in Gaza that should the missile attacks continue then a clearly designated row of buildings in Gaza would be destroyed. Should the attacks continue another row of buildings would be destroyed, with more buildings to follow as the attacks continued. These two men, both veterans of Israel’s wars, thought this solution was the only one which would work.

One man, a successful businessman, thought an all out invasion into Gaza a mistake, agreeing with Haifa’s former mayor. “We’ve been there, occupied Gaza. What did we gain from it?”

Some pundits see this latest rocket launch by the Palestinians as a message to U.S. President George W. Bush, who is scheduled to visit the region on Tuesday through Thursday. Analysts say the Palestinians have many more of these Grad long-range missiles, which reportedly were supplied by the Iranians, and shipped by sea to Gaza.

The only reason the Palestinians have not used the missiles up until now is because they know that Israel will respond with either a massive invasion or an increase in the renewed targeted assassinations. Israel has successfully eliminated a number of leading bomb-makers and missile builders since Defense Minister Ehud Barak replaced political rival Amir Peretz in the defense post. Arab affairs analysts believe the Palestinians are worried that an increase in the missiles will mean risking the lives of Palestinian leaders. To many this implied threat of assassination is an effective deterrent against the increased use of Grad missiles.

U.S. President Bush has a goal in coming to the Middle East, it is just not clear what that goal is. The President gave interviews to Israel’s leading newspaper Yideot Achranot, and the popular Channel 10 TV network. In both interviews he extolled the virtues of Pm Olmert. Some analysts see this as Bush adding his support to Olmert on the eve of the Winnograd Commission’s findings, which are expected to harshly judge Olmert’s behavior during the War in Lebanon II. Calling Olmert a” man of vision” and “a strong man,” and “a good friend” Bush was lending the power of the presidency to keeping Olmert in office.

Others see Bush’s trip as a way to pressure Israel into some concessions when the Olmert-Bush-Abbas summit take place. Buttering up Olmert with praise before the meeting might just get Olmert to overrule right-wing objections and make some painful concessions. It is also a way for Bush to bolster the Republican candidates. Political analysts say that should any significant movement be made in the Middle East Bush can point to those gains and boast that Republicans get things done in the region.

Still others see the trip as a way for President Bush to try to underline the statements that Iran is a major threat to the region, in spite of the recent US intelligence agencies reports that erode the urgency of that belief. Israel’s difficulties with getting Egypt to enforce their promise to seal the border and prevent Hamas from bringing in weapons is not expected to be discussed openly, although pundits believe this issue will be made clear to President Bush.

Israel’s raid of the West Bank town of Nablus, under Palestinian Authority control, was an embarrassment to the PA leader Abbas. Israel busted a bomb-making factory, confiscated weapons, ammunition, and bomb-making implements, including one explosive laden belt ready to be used. Israel also arrested twenty militants, including ten veterans long wanted by Israel. All were connected to the militant wing of Fatah, Abbas’ party. Some speculate that it was Abbas who led Israeli forces to these men, others say that Abbas has long avoided sending his troops after Fatah men who were committing crimes against Israel.

This will be President Bush’s first trip to Israel since he took office. He visited Israel once before, but as Governor of Texas. Major arteries of Jerusalem will be closed to traffic during the three-day visit, from Wednesday Jan 9 - Friday Jan 11. Yaacov Assoulin, a beauty shop operator with a parlor on King David Street said he had to take off three-days of work during the President’s visit. Yaacov said that no cars could be parked on the streets during the visit and none allowed into the area. He said that none of his clients would be able to get to his shop.

Worse, he said that the government offered no compensation to him, or the fifty odd other shops in the area affected by the visit, claiming that the closure of the area was due to an existential threat on the President’s life and as such no compensation was due the shopkeepers. He further said that any visit by an American president to the region placed that US leader in danger, and as a consequence there was always an existential threat. Yaacov was considering taking the three days and “going down to Eilat.”

A small bruha took place over the proposed release of Marwan Barghoutti, jailed leader of the Fatah Party’s (now the Palestinian Authority) Tanzim movement. Barghoutti is serving multiple prison terms for murder. Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilanai has suggested that Barghoutti be exchanged for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But according to Yideot Achranot Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter said that “Israel views Marwan Barghoutti as an extremely bold-blooded killer that should be in prison the rest of his days.” Reportedly, PM Olmert strongly rejected Vilnai’s suggestion.

PM Olmert has also reinstated the Ministry of Religion, after it was closed four years ago, and turned its control over to the Shas party. Political analysts see this as just one more of Olmert’s maneuver’s to strengthen the coalition before the Winnograd commission’s findings are released on Jan 30th.

Olmert has also reportedly made overtures to the right-wing Israel Beitenu party by allowing construction on the disputed Har Homa site in what the Palestinians consider East Jerusalem.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has threatened to bolt the coalition if the Winnograd Commission finds PM Olmert responsible for the errors of the War in Lebanon II. These moves by Olmert, according to political analysts, are meant to shore up the coalition in case Barak makes good on his promise.

However, the analysts say that Barak will first take note of how the US politicians decide on a stand on any issue: check the polls. If after the Winnograd commission’s report the public is calling for Olmert’s scalp, the analysts believe Barak will resign, and call for new elections. If however it appears the Olmert will weather the storm, Barak will side-step the statements he made earlier promising he’d resign if Olmert was found culpable of gross misconduct, and stay in the government.

The perpetual optimism of the Israeli people seems to be fading a bit as the Israeli stock exchange fell again, this time by two and a half percent on worries that the US sub-prime mortgage fiasco will further impact Israel.

With the U.S. President making his final push for a peace agreement in the Middle East, and the U.S. presidential race gathering momentum, some analysts think that the Bush visit may force Israel to make concessions. However, according to one businessman, Bush was here four times, and Rice many more than that and so far nothing has changed.

Some analysts wonder if that was good or bad.