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SDEROT & LIEBERMAN

Lieberman Protests Phony Palestinian Peace Process While Real War Being Waged Over Sderot

Olmert & Barak Prefer Escalation Of Special Operations Rather Than IDF Invasion Of Gaza

Olmert Coalition Government Still Pivots On Labor's Barak

MK Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Amit Shabi)

In Israel this week, the escalation along the Gaza border and the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman's' Party from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition government may have more in common than meets the eye. IsraCast is of the view that both developments set the stage for determining questions of national leadership in the post Winograd period. Political leaders from across the political spectrum will be taking a stand on the issues of war and peace with the Palestinians.

There is no apparent connection between Israel's war of attrition with Hamas controlled Gaza and the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman's right wing party from the Olmert government. The relentless Palestinian rocketing of Sderot from Gaza forced Israel to escalate its counter terror operations to suppress the daily bombardment that has forced nearly half of Sderot residents to flee. In recent months the Israeli security forces have killed hundreds of terrorists by launching local air and ground strikes. However, this has not succeeded in reducing rocketing to a tolerable level. On the contrary, the terrorists have launched even more rockets to prove they are alive and kicking. And in a new twist, a Palestinian sniper moved close to the Israeli border where he shot dead a foreign volunteer from Ecuador who was working in the fields of a kibbutz. Within 48 hours the residents of Sderot faced over 100 Qassam rockets and mortars. Many have fled the town in fear while those remaining live in a constant state of tension listening for sirens warning them to rush to bomb shelters within 15 seconds or so. Five were wounded by the rocketing while dozens more were treated for trauma.

Qassam rocket in Sderot

Inside Israel, there were renewed demands that the government send the IDF back into Gaza to wipe out the terrorist threat. This is something that both Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Barak are loath to do at this stage. One apparently official leak to the Maariv newspaper reported that an IDF simulation revealed that over 70 Israeli soldiers would be killed in the first week of a ground offensive to reoccupy Gaza. So the Israeli strategy has been geared to a policy of low intensity warfare but the problem is despite their losses, the terrorists have managed to keep up a steady shower of rockets.

The violence reached a new level this week with Defense Minister Barak warning of ratcheting up IDF strikes if need be. The only thing that has allowed the government to resist the hue and cry for the ground invasion is a fact that the many Qassam rockets have caused few fatalities. This could change overnight if one scored a direct hit on a school or kindergarten. To date, Barak and Olmert have stopped short of provoking what they want to prevent - an all-out invasion of Gaza. The Likud opposition party has repeatedly called on the government to send in the IDF charging that Olmert and Bark are sacrificing the people of Sderot in order to advance peace contacts with the other half of the Palestinian authority - President Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank.

This is where Avigdor Lieberman's resignation comes in. His Yisrael Beitenu Israel Party draws its support from right wing Russian immigrants who oppose the current process with Abbas. Seeing the writing on the wall after Olmert started negotiating 'core issues' with Abbas this week, Lieberman decided the time was right to quit the government in order to preserve his political base in the next election, which could come sooner than expected. Lieberman contends that Annapolis process initiated by US President Bush is a dire threat to the Jewish state. He declared: 'territory for peace is not the issue - Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip and the Palestinians have exploited it as a launch pad for rocketing Sderot'. Lieberman's solution is a land and population exchange with the Palestinians. He declared that Israeli Arabs also reject the idea of a Jewish state, branding Arab Knesset members Ahmad Tibi and Muhammad Barake as being more dangerous then Hamas leader Haled Mashal and Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah. Tibi retorted that Lieberman is an outright fascist.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Although the loss of Lieberman's 11 Knesset seats prunes Olmert's majority to 67 in the 120 member Knesset the Prime Minister might still survive. The religious party Shas has apparently rewarded with a religious affairs cabinet portfolio and will stay put until concessions on Jerusalem are put on the table. The result is that Ehud Olmert's political fate is still in the hands of Ehud Barak. As reported previously by IsraCast the Labor party leader will look to Olmert's Kadima party after the Winograd report on January 30th to see if there is a move there to dump the Prime Minister after another condemnation for his handling of the Second Lebanese war. Although Foreign Minister Zippi Livni and transport Minister Shaul Mofaz have been jockeying for Kadima party leader it is impossible to predict what will happen in Kadima. This, as in Barak's case, depends on the public reaction. It's possible that rather than risk an internal split Kadima might simply do nothing. Barak will then have to recommend to Labor whether to remain in the Olmert government or to honor his prior pledge to seek a date for an early election. This is where Sderot, let alone the Iranian nuclear threat comes in. Conceivably, Barak could argue that the national interest now supersedes his public promise and it is vital that he carries on as defense minister at this time. Labor party sources say Barak might prefer to ride out the public outcry against Olmert and continue as defense minister. His bleak alternative would be to risk losing to the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu in an early election with slim chance of retrieving the defense job.

If anything, in the post-Winograd period , difficult and complex questions on Israel's national agenda, will likely grow in urgency.The security question posed by Sderot and internal politicking such as Lieberman's resignation - war and peace making with the peace making with the Palestinians at the same time, signal what is ahead for the country's leaders, whoever they may be.

David Essing

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