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Payback time

After a month of military failure, dark clouds are gathering over Israel's political leaders, writes Jonathan Cook in Nazareth

Al-Ahram Weekly, 17-23 August 2006

As soon as the guns fell silent on the battlefields of South Lebanon Monday, the knives came out: Israel is in for a lengthy period of bloodletting among its political and military classes following the army's failure to inflict serious damage on the Lebanese militia Hizbullah in a month-long confrontation.

Ehud Olmert, the recently elected prime minister who had hoped to prove that despite his lack of military experience he could fill the shoes of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, is a certain victim. Although he may cling to power for some time, the question is not whether he will fall but when. Few in Israel appear convinced that the terms of the UN-brokered ceasefire -- pushing Hizbullah back from the border and replacing it with an international peace-keeping force and Lebanese troops -- were worth the cost in blood or that they will ever be properly implemented.

Olmert tried to put the best gloss he could on the UN resolution in a speech to the Knesset Monday, shortly after the ceasefire kicked in. He said Hizbullah had been dealt "a harsh blow" and that it was no longer "allowed to act inside a state as an arm of the axis of evil", referring to Syria and Iran. But he admitted: "The overall responsibility for this [military] operation lies with me, the prime minister. I am not asking to share this with anyone." Certainly no one was offering to share the burden.

Although Israeli newspaper headlines were urging, "Olmert must go", others will find themselves in the firing line too. Amir Peretz, the insecure leader of the rival Labour Party, who joined Olmert's coalition government in a role -- defence minister -- he was transparently unsuited for, will struggle to salvage his political reputation after a lacklustre martial performance. The huge costs of the war -- so far estimated at more than $5 billion -- will be paid for in cuts to social and welfare reforms that were at the heart of Peretz's election platform.

The army will probably suffer its own losses at the command level, to add to -- and account for -- the 120 or so soldiers killed on the battlefield. It is facing criticism in particular for failing to stop the barrage of 1,000 plus Hizbullah rockets fired into Israel every week for a month.

Chief of Staff Dan Halutz is likely to face calls for his resignation as soon as it becomes clear that the ceasefire is holding. The former head of the air force has faced an avalanche of criticism that he put too much weight on aerial strikes in the early stages of the military campaign, trusting that his pilots could disable Hizbullah without the need for a ground invasion. Popular perception is that he held off too long on sending in troops and then left the invasion force too little time to complete its task.

Another senior army officer, Udi Adam, head of the northern command, has already paid a price. He was effectively replaced last week by Halutz's deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky, who was put in charge of overseeing the stepped-up invasion of South Lebanon in the final days before the ceasefire. Adam is known to be fearful that he will be made the scapegoat for the army's failings and is already arguing in public that politicians tied his hands. "The moment the diplomatic echelon made the decision, we launched the offensive," he told the media. "The Northern Command was ready from the moment we were told to begin the offensive."

Olmert rejected this and similar criticisms from the army, arguing last week -- before the hurried push to the Litani River, 30 kilometres inside Lebanon -- that, "no operative plan was brought to me to widen the picture beyond the lines where the IDF [Israeli army] is today."

More of these disputes will doubtless surface in an all-but-inevitable public inquiry. At the moment, Peretz has promised to establish a "team" to investigate the way the army conducted the war, but pressure is already growing from the left and right to set up a full commission of enquiry that will also examine the government's performance.

Areas of particular concern that will be the focus of attention in any enquiry are: why it took so long for the army to launch a ground invasion; why military intelligence failed to assess the extent of Hizbullah's arsenal or its ability to protect its weapons and fighters from aerial bombardment; and why the government approved a last- minute push to the Litani, with a predictable rise in casualties, when a ceasefire had already been agreed.

Inevitably the battle lines in any such enquiry will be drawn between the generals and the government. This is likely to be Olmert's undoing. Most Israelis still place their highest trust in the army, and there can be little doubt about who will be believed if the senior command claims -- as it already appears to be doing -- that the government failed to support its recommendations for harsher reprisals against Hizbullah and opted instead for the diplomatic track. If Olmert argues that he deferred to the army, his lack of military competence -- and the differences with his mentor, Sharon -- will only be underscored.

Nonetheless, a Monday poll showed the damage that has been done to the reputation of the army among the Israeli public. A Globes Smith poll revealed that 52 per cent of respondents believed the army had failed in its Lebanon offensive, compared with 44 per cent who thought it did well.

A sign of Olmert's political weakness was evident in an opinion poll taken by Haaretz newspaper late last week, as Israel's approval of a ceasefire looked imminent. The survey showed Olmert's rating had plunged from 75 per cent at the start of the conflict to 48 per cent. Peretz received an even more dismal ranking: 37 per cent thought he was doing a good job.

The poll coincided with the first demonstrations against the war by Peace Now, the largest of the country's peace groups and the one most reluctant usually to challenge the government or army. Three acclaimed authors, Amos Oz, A B Yehoshua and David Grossman also expressed their opposition to the cabinet decision to expand ground operations in Lebanon. Grossman's son, a tank commander, was killed a day later in South Lebanon by a Hizbullah anti-tank missile.

There will be two likely beneficiaries of Olmert and Peretz's sinking fortunes. The first is Shaul Mofaz, a rival for the leadership of the prime minister's Kadima Party and a former army chief of staff. He was humiliated after the recent election by being stripped of the Defence Ministry portfolio and given the Transport Ministry instead. There is no love lost between Olmert and Mofaz. In fact, Mofaz was the only cabinet minister not to vote in favour of the ceasefire last Sunday. He abstained.

The other possible winner is Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, which was routed at the election. Netanyahu was lost in the political wilderness until the war with Lebanon erupted, when he started to reverse his standing by offering statesmanlike support to Olmert while making it clear that he would have conducted the war in a firmer manner. Netanyahu's rating has risen to 58 per cent.

In a Knesset speech Monday, Netanyahu began preparing the case against the government: "It must be said honestly, there were many failures, failures in identifying the threat, failures in preparing to meet the threat, failures in the management of the war, failures in the management of the home front."

There is widespread speculation that Netanyahu might make a comeback by trying to recruit the previous chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, to his party. Yaalon, like Netanyahu, is known to be deeply opposed to the core policy of Olmert and his Kadima Party: unilateral withdrawals like the one from Gaza last year, the proposed one from the West Bank, and the forerunner of both, the withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000.

Olmert will probably not go without a fight, and may hold on for some time. One of the quickest ways to postpone the day of reckoning, he might decide, would be to sink Israel deeper into war, either by finding a way to break the ceasefire with Hizbullah or by widening the hostilities to Syria or Iran.

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