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Tallying Success and Failure

As war ceases without clear victor, Israelis add up the good, the bad and the ugly


by Leslie Susser

August 17, 2006 | 8:00 pm

As a U.N.-brokered cease-fire takes effect after 33 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, criticism is growing of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's handling of the war.

Some politicians and opinion-makers are calling for his resignation. Israelis are also asking more searching questions: Did Israel win or lose the war? And what are the regional ramifications likely to be?

The strongest attack on Olmert came from the influential journalist Ari Shavit. In a front-page Op-Ed in Ha'aretz titled "Olmert Must Go," Shavit wrote, "You cannot bury 120 Israelis, keep a million in shelters for a month, erode our deterrent power, bring the next war very close, and then say, 'Oops, I made a mistake. That's not what I meant. Pass me a cigar, please.'"

The main arguments Shavit and others make against Olmert are that his decision to go to war was made hastily and without considering all the possible consequences; that he was persuaded into believing that air power alone could do the job; that he was late in ordering the large-scale entry of land forces into Lebanon and left the home front exposed to rocket fire far longer than necessary; and that he did little to alleviate the suffering of people in the North, who were forced to spend more than a month in bomb shelters.

Olmert's perceived blunders have given the Israeli right a new lease on life. They believe the war has dealt a lethal blow to Olmert's plans for a major unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

Their argument is that both of Israel's previous unilateral pullouts -- from Lebanon in May 2000 and the Gaza Strip last summer -- were perceived by Israel's enemies as weakness and led to heavy rocket attacks on Israeli civilians from precisely those areas the Israel Defense Forces no longer controlled.

This pattern would be repeated with far worse consequences if Israel withdraws from the West Bank, the right-wingers say.

Some right-wingers believe that without its defining idea of unilateral withdrawal, Olmert's Kadima Party may start to implode.

Likud Knesset member Yisrael Katz says he expects a sweeping shift in Israeli public opinion that could lead to a major shake-up in Parliament. To make the most of it, he's urging the Likud to form a parliamentary bloc with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and to bring vote-catching outsiders like the former IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon -- tipped as a possible candidate for defense minister -- into the Likud.

Katz speaks about a possible reversal of the "big bang" in Israeli politics that led to the formation of Kadima last November and the Likud's subsequent ouster from power.

"The Likud must take the lead in forming a strong, centrist Zionist alternative opposed to further unilateral moves," Katz said.

Independent polls show that Olmert's West Bank "realignment" plan is in trouble. Before the war, it had more than 60 percent support; now, according to a poll by the respected Dahaf Institute, 47 percent of Israelis are in favor and 47 percent against.

Moreover, other polls show that Olmert's approval rating has plummeted from 75 percent at the start of war to under 50 percent. Worse: Less than 40 percent are satisfied with the way he handled the war, and some polls suggest that if elections were held today, Kadima would crash from 29 Knesset seats to around 16.

Looking at the bigger picture, there are two schools of thought in Israel on the probable regional fallout of the war. Pessimists maintain that the inconclusive fighting with Hezbollah has undermined Israeli deterrence and altered the regional balance of power in favor of Israel's enemies in Iran and Syria, and that a wider outbreak of fighting is simply a matter of time.

In their view, Syria may be tempted into thinking that by following the Hezbollah model, it will be able to recapture the Golan Heights by force. Optimists contend that the pounding taken by Hezbollah and Lebanon actually has enhanced Israel's deterrent capacity, that the regional power balance has shifted in Israel's favor and that it could create momentum for peace talks with Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians.

What ends up happening could depend on the extent to which Hezbollah is able to rearm and whether Iran is able to produce a nuclear weapon. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, on which the cease-fire is based, calls for Hezbollah's disarmament; Security Council Resolution 1696 urges Iran to stop enriching uranium by Aug. 31 or face possible sanctions.

So far, however, Hezbollah is refusing to hand over its weapons, and Iran's leaders say they intend to go ahead with their nuclear program.

There are sharp differences of opinion among Israeli pundits over whether Israel won or lost. In a piece headlined "We did not win," Yediot Achronot analyst Nahum Barnea writes: "Israel goes into the cease-fire bruised, divided and concerned. The question of what happened to Israel in this war deserves a searching debate. In this war Israel was battered, Lebanon was battered and Hezbollah was battered. We naturally focus on the blows we took. And they are not insubstantial. The number of dead, the paralysis of the home front, turning hundreds of thousands of Israelis into refugees, and perhaps the hardest blow of all: the realization that the IDF cannot meet our expectations."

But on the same page, Barnea's colleague Sever Plotsker takes a diametrically opposite view. Plotsker describes Resolution 1701 as a major political achievement for Israel, "perhaps one of the most important in its history. It can be summed up in a phrase: Israel and the world against the Hezbollah thugs." Winner or loser, it's clear that Israel has been shaken, and there well could be a state commission of inquiry into the war and the way it was prosecuted, with tough questions for the political and military echelons.

If there is, Olmert -- whose term of office began with such promise just more than 100 days ago -- will be the main target.

Analysis

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

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