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Thursday, 17 August 2006

Israeli leaders face discontent over war's payoff

NEWS ANALYSIS
Despite confident assessment by Olmert, poll shows huge drop in his approval rating

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Page A - 12

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Israeli political and military leaders say they achieved almost all the goals they set forth at the start of the 34-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, yet a solid majority of ordinary Israelis appear dissatisfied with the outcome.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embarked on the military campaign after a mere three months in office, promising to cripple Hezbollah, to destroy its missile capability and to win the freedom of two Israeli soldiers whose capture on July 12 triggered the confrontation.

But instead of emerging strengthened after a decisive military victory, Olmert has seen his approval rating plummet -- 40 percent, compared with 78 percent in the first two weeks of the offensive, according to a recent TNS-Teleseker poll.

"We entered this war for justified reasons," said former Likud Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. "The kidnapping of the two soldiers was a wild action, which demanded a response. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in bringing them home. We did not disarm Hezbollah. We did not succeed in removing the missile threat. The people of Israel are asking how it is, after a month in the shelters, that the threat remains, that we can expect another round of fighting," he said.

In an effort to defuse criticism, Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Wednesday appointed a committee headed by former military Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak to investigate the army's preparations and conduct of the war. But critics said a more independent commission is needed -- a view expressed by two-thirds of respondents polled by two rival daily newspapers, Yediot Ahronot and Maariv.

The yawning gulf between the satisfaction of the Israeli establishment and the anger of the general public appears to stem from a fundamental disconnect between the leaders of the country and the people.

Military reservists sent to fight in Lebanon reported shortages of basic equipment and food. Soldiers said their commanders appeared to have little understanding of the purpose of the dangerous missions they were asked to undertake. And more than a million residents of the north feel they were forced to abandon their homes or sit in uncomfortable underground shelters for days or weeks on end, without any tangible result.

Nowhere is the gap in perceptions between the leadership and the public sharper than in the growing scandal around the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, after it emerged that he liquidated his personal investment portfolio on the day of the Hezbollah cross-border raid -- only hours before Israel's military operation began, when share values plummeted by more than 8 percent.

Labor Party legislator Colette Avital called on Halutz to resign, saying she questioned the general's priorities.

"Not only was this in my opinion unethical, I have doubts about his judgment. I hope he will consider his position," she said.

But aside from the personal conduct of the chief of staff, Israelis also had deeper concerns about the whole operation.

On Monday, hours after a cease-fire went into effect, Olmert said the Israeli offensive had ended Hezbollah's "state within a state," and "changed the strategic balance against Hezbollah." But he acknowledged that the two soldiers were not yet home, and he admitted there were "shortcomings" in prosecuting the war.

Shalom, the ex-foreign minister, said there were "some very tough questions to be asked about the conduct of the war, how decisions were made, the direction of the home front, and the diplomatic agreement -- which in my opinion is very bad for Israel."

The gap between the public's perception and the leaders' assessment extended also to the army.

"I would suggest we have met our objectives and even much better," said Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a top Air Force commander on the general staff. "We knew it would take weeks or months. We weren't surprised by what happened."

But many Israelis were surprised, and deeply disappointed, that Hezbollah appears to have emerged largely intact from the battlefield, with its missile capability impaired but operative.

One former senior intelligence official said the Israeli bombing campaign -- which provoked widespread international criticism and caused many civilian deaths -- did not produce the expected results.

"The hope was that the aerial bombardment would soften up Hezbollah to the point where they would not be able to carry out the kind of bombing they began on the northern part of Israel. Although Israel achieved great success in knocking out much of the strategic long-range missiles, more than 70 percent, we had less success with taking out the medium- and short-range missiles and launchers. Hezbollah were putting up stiff resistance, maybe stiffer than anticipated," said the intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Intelligence is not a pure art. You cannot expect an intelligence capability to assess accurately the resistance potential of a certain group of fighters," he said. "You can ask intelligence to locate sites, to describe the technical capabilities of forces based on the equipment they have at their disposal, but you cannot expect intelligence to assess the human element and their capability in a given situation."

Israeli planners also pinned their hopes on creating internal political pressures within Lebanon against Hezbollah, but badly miscalculated.

"The expectation was that if the aerial bombardment was fierce enough, there would arise in Lebanon a very formidable backlash against Hezbollah by a majority of Lebanese citizens. This did not happen," said the official.

On the ground, soldiers reported tactical errors, lack of training and shortages of equipment. In Israel's citizen army, those shortcomings could not be kept under wraps and will now be the subject of intense debate.

"We went to war and we should have been better prepared, it's clear. The result we achieved after 30 days of fighting was certainly not the result the government had in mind when it instructed the Israeli Defense Forces to embark on this struggle," said Dan Meridor, a former Likud minister who drafted a recent report on the army's lack of preparedness for just such a guerrilla war.

"There were things that we achieved, and Hezbollah suffered a huge blow. We can see that. But the aim of returning the kidnapped soldiers, which is the reason we began, has not been achieved, nor was it possible to achieve in my opinion. Stopping the Katyusha fire was also not achieved. These are things which we should have known from the beginning it would be impossible to achieve."

Meridor said Israel achieved "significant changes" in Lebanon, "but the test of how much will be in the implementation of the agreement achieved at the Security Council."

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