Analysis Israel's Main Goal: Damage Control

Only one word wasn't heard during the special meeting of the political-security cabinet convened last night: disengagement. No one spoke about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to evacuate the settlements from the Gaza Strip, a plan that was put on hold following the referendum vote by Likud party members.

Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz tried to isolate yesterday's incident in Zeitoun, describing it as a tragedy but not as an event of strategic significance. These types of mishaps occur in every war, was the message.

Consequently, the response should focus on locating and returning the bodies of the fallen soldiers rather than on retaliation and punishment. Israel's principal goal is to conclude this affair with a minimum of damage and not to further escalate the situation.

Defense officials said yesterday that "the world" would not look kindly on a major Israeli operation in Gaza. The IDF presented Sharon with a series of limited operations aimed at improving Israel's position against the terror organizations in Gaza.

Sharon and Mofaz enjoyed a rare consensus of support from the leaders of National Union and the National Religious Party, Effi Eitam and Yosef (Tommy) Lapid. Both agreed the Zeitoun incident should be treated as a localized event without getting dragged into harsh reactions.

It was decided, for now, to refuse to negotiate with the organizations holding the body parts. It's not clear how long Israel will stick to this position, especially when it is under pressure from the families of the soldiers.

Sharon's bureau said yesterday that there was "no connection" between the IDF operation in Gaza and the disengagement plan. The prime minister always tries to keep military and political moves separate and this time he has good reasons to justify this stance.

Israel left the Zeitoun neighborhood a decade ago, when the Palestinian Authority was established in Gaza. The prime minister is on record as saying that even if his plan to evacuate Gaza settlements is implemented, the war on terror there will continue and perhaps even intensify.

The connection between the incident yesterday and the disengagement plan is indirect. The IDF has stepped up its activities against the terror organizations in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, leading to many Palestinian casualties and heavy damages.

These operations were intended as a prelude to disengagement but, as was evident yesterday, continued after the plan was shot down by the Likud.