Israel’s Olmert Stands Firm As Hostage Crisis Remains Unsolved
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Israel’s Olmert Stands Firm As Hostage Crisis Remains Unsolved

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Two weeks into the biggest crisis he has faced as Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert appears determined to demonstrate that Israel is willing to stay in the Gaza Strip for now. With little public progress in efforts to recover an Israeli soldier abducted by Palestinian gunmen on June 25, and troops and tanks waging a bloody sweep for Gaza rocket crews, Olmert on Sunday vowed more of the same.

“This is a war that cannot be put on a timetable,” he told Cabinet ministers. “We will press this campaign with calm and patience, mustering all the right means and preserving the proper discretion.”

In tactical terms, the Gaza Strip campaign has scored points for Olmert.

Some 50 Palestinians, mostly combatants, have died, compared to one Israeli soldier likely killed accidentally by his comrades in northern Gaza. Despite censure from the European Union over “disproportionate force” by Israel, global outcry has been largely muted.

And while Cpl. Gilad Shalit remains captive somewhere in Gaza, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government, which at first distanced itself from his kidnapping, has as the military pressure mounts become more outspoken on the need to keep him alive and embrace diplomacy.

After days of intense Israeli military pressure, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh proposed a truce on Saturday.

“To solve this crisis, we must return to the starting point, to calm, including an end to military actions on both sides,” he said.

Olmert rejected the overture, just as last week he rejected a demand by Shalit’s captors that hundreds of Palestinians jailed in Israel be freed.

“We will not negotiate with terrorists. We will not negotiate with Hamas. To do so would encourage more abductions,” Olmert said.

But one of Olmert’s closest allies in the Cabinet suggested a compromise, a kind of retroactive prisoner swap, could still be in the works.

“The release of the kidnapped soldier will be a must. The moment that Kassam rocket fire also stops, we will enter a period of quiet, at the end of which it will be possible to release prisoners as a goodwill gesture,” Israel’s internal security minister, Avi Dichter, said at a conference in Tel Aviv.

“This is something that Israel has done in the past and that can serve it in the future as well.”

The remarks were relayed internationally, prompting Dichter to say he had been misunderstood and Olmert’s office to deny a deal was in the offing.

But the Palestinians, under pressure to see Israeli forces out of Gaza, were nonetheless encouraged. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he felt a prisoner swap could still be achieved. Similar comments were made by Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy to Hamas’s leader abroad, Khaled Meshaal.

“These reported statements increase the chances of a deal,” Abu Marzouk told the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat.

In any event, Israel appears to be prepared to keep its forces in Gaza — especially as cross-border rocket fire has continued in defiance of the crackdown. Three people in the Israeli border town of Sderot were wounded by a salvo on their homes Sunday, one of them moderately.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the Cabinet he envisages a situation where tanks and troops are dispatched to Gaza on an ad-hoc basis.

“We are prepared to continue the operation another month, two months and if need be even more,” said Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant, chief of Israel’s Southern Command. “When the Palestinians do their overall reckoning in another month or two, and count the hundreds of dead terrorists and the infrastructure that has been damaged, I expect that they will think twice before the next kidnapping attempt.”

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