Israel promises forceful response to Gaza attacks


PRIME MINISTER Binyamin Netanyahu has vowed to retaliate against any attacks on Israeli citizens or troops, saying Israel holds Hamas responsible for the killing of two soldiers during clashes in Gaza on Friday.

He told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that Israel’s retaliation will be “forceful and decisive”. Yuval Steinitz, a minister in Mr Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, warned that Israel may be forced to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and “liquidate” Hamas rulers if Palestinian militants continue firing rockets into Israel.

“I am not setting a timetable, but we will not tolerate this regime continuing to strengthen itself militarily,” Mr Steinitz said.

Although Mr Netanyahu has still not replied to a list of demands set by US president Barack Obama for measures to be taken by Israel ahead of the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, he downplayed reports of a crisis in relations with Washington.

He also rejected comments in Israel’s largest-selling newspaper Yediot Aharanot, attributed to an anonymous aide, describing Mr Obama as “a strategic disaster” and a “tragedy” for Israel.

“These comments do not come from anyone representing me. The relations between Israel and the United States are those of allies and friends, and are based on tradition spanning many years,” said Mr Netanyahu.

A senior Obama administration official yesterday denied that the president had snubbed the Israeli leader during last week’s White House meeting, even though the event was closed to the media and did not even include the traditional photo opportunity. White House senior adviser David Axelrod told CNN the two men held two hours of discussions and were not concerned with formalities.

“This was a working meeting. We have a deep, abiding interest in Israel’s security. And we believe the peace process is essential to that. And we are doing everything we can to move that process forward.”

Speaking a day after Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas ruled out any contacts until Israel agrees to a total settlement freeze, including in east Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the current impasse.

“We continue to see that the Palestinians are hardening their positions. They do not show any sign of moderation,” he told ministers.

Israel has angered both the Palestinians and Washington with recent announcements of plans for more building for Jews in east Jerusalem neighbourhoods.

Mr Netanyahu, already under pressure from his own Likud party and right-wing coalition partners not to make concessions on Jerusalem, now faces pressure from the government’s left flank.

Labor party ministers are showing growing signs of unease over the diplomatic deadlock, and the party’s parliamentary faction will meet next month to consider their future in the coalition.

Labor minister Yitzhak Herzog said he will recommend a government headed by the centrist Kadima party. “Israel is confronting an international situation and threats from Iran, and this requires a change in the governing coalition,” he said.

If Labor was to leave the government, Mr Netanyahu would be left with a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset parliament.