Barak Ravid
December 10, 2008 - 1:00am

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Wednesday to discuss the future of Israel's policy on the Gaza Strip, after the ongoing cease-fire with Hamas comes to end next week.

Just hours before the meeting, a Qassam rocket struck the western Negev, following a two-day lull in fire from Gaza.

The prime minister would not allow any details of the meeting to be released to the public, but topics on the agenda included Israel's response to Hamas in light of the militant group's continued violations of the truce.

While Olmert and Livni have both refused to rule out an operation in the coastal territory, Barak has urged leaders to wait out the situation before taking action on Gaza.

Barak, who took part in a military drill in northern Israel on Wednesday morning, called on all parties to keep the discussion surrounding the Gaza security situation out of the political dialogue, ahead of the upcoming general elections.

"We will take action in the right place and time, with consideration and responsibility," Barak said. "The unnecessary talk, especially during this highly political season, doesn't advance anything and doesn't contribute to selecting the right time for action to succeed, and I recommend that everyone just stop talking and wait."

The Qassam fired early Wednesday exploded in the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council. No injuries or damage were reported in the attack.

On Tuesday, Olmert threatened that Israel would lash out against Gaza militants in response to a recent escalation in rocket and mortar fire from the Gaza Strip.

The prime minister met with children during a tour of rocket-battered communities bordering Gaza, and vowed: "We will never flee from our homes. We won't defend, but will attack - and stop once and for all what threatens our daily lives."

"I say, with full responsibility, that we know what needs to be done, but we also know when to act so that you won't be scared and won't need to run breathlessly to the shelters," he said.

Olmert, Barak, Livni and top defense officials were discussing whether to extend the six-month-old lull, which officially ends December 19.

They were also expected to take into consideration the effect that the January 9 end of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' term will have on Hamas' activity. Olmert, Barak and Livni are expected to focus on policy rather than make any operational decisions during Wednesday's meeting.

Olmert has privately said the lull is dead and that even if Israel is interested in extending it, the rules need to be changed.

Livni, who said on Tuesday that Israel must respond to Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel, is expected to side with Olmert on the issue. Barak, however, does not want to change the current policy of military restraint.

"Israel must respond to all [rocket] fire," Livni said at a conference at Tel Aviv University. "It won't stop the attacks, but appearances have a purpose. When Israel creates an image of weakness, this weakens our deterrent capability."

Livni said adherence to a lull was no longer in Israel's interest.

"When we decided on the lull, the Israeli interest was quiet for the short term, and it's impossible to say now that that's also the long-term interest," she said. "I'm embarrassed to call the situation in the south a lull, because the rocket fire is unceasing."

Palestinians have fired more than 200 rockets on Israel since the Gaza border region flared up November 4, after six Hamas operatives were killed when the Israel Defense Forces destroyed a tunnel near the border.

Olmert recently asked defense officials and the Foreign Ministry to prepare position papers on various ways to secure the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, legal issues concerning a military and civil response to rocket fire from Gaza, and operational issues concerning the rocket fire.

The cabinet is slated to discuss on Sunday the legal elements of an Israeli response to the Qassam fire. Barak, who is working on this position paper, will present the methods the IDF seeks to use, including artillery fire and sanctions like halting the supply of water and electricity to Gaza, and the legal limitations involved.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017