As troops battled Hezbollah, outcry arose that may yet end political, military careers
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Page A - 8
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jerusalem -- Israel's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon ended two weeks ago, but one date keeps recurring in the endless Israeli press commentary: 1973.
That was the year of the Yom Kippur War, when Israeli intelligence failed to predict a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria that nearly overwhelmed the Jewish state. Israel's combat soldiers -- prominent among them future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- managed to eke out a victory, but the nation's leaders were forced to resign, clearing the way for a new generation led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Back in 1973, however, the process took time. The war lasted for 20 days in October. Prime Minister Golda Meir was returned to power in a general election in December, albeit with a reduced majority, and eventually resigned the following April, six months after the war.
Moti Ashkenazi, the lone combat soldier who led the protests that eventually brought about the downfall of Meir and her legendary defense minister, Moshe Dayan, recalled that it took three months before he felt able to mount his one-man vigil outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.
In 2006, in keeping with the rhythm of the 24-hour news cycle that broadcast the war in real time, the protests began while the fighting was still going on. Last week, Ashkenazi returned to Jerusalem to address demonstrators.
"We are the sovereign, we are the bosses, we are the ones entitled to ask the elected officials to hand back their power if they do not come up to standard," he told the crowd.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, did not lose the war against Hezbollah. On the contrary, a canny combination of military might and diplomatic finesse produced a cease-fire deal underwritten by the United Nations and secured by thousands of European troops.
If fully implemented, it will achieve Israel's strategic war aims: disarming Hezbollah, removing the threat of rocket fire on northern Israel, deploying the Lebanese army to the Israel-Lebanon border and extending Lebanese government control over the whole country.
But, as in 1973, the technical victory may not be enough to save Olmert's government or Halutz's military career. One clearly stated goal of the war -- the return of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in the raid that sparked the conflict -- remains unrealized.
As Israeli protests mount, an internal military inquiry has already been opened by Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose job is also on the line. There are calls for a wide-ranging, independent commission to investigate the many shortcomings in the conduct of the war, from the lack of food, water and equipment for frontline troops to the failure of the top brass to order bunker-buster bombs from America in time.
Some demonstrators have even been marching to the grave of Golda Meir and then to Olmert's office. The symbolism is clear.
On Friday, the family of Sgt. Refanael Muskal, who was killed in southern Lebanon a month ago, led one such protest to Meir's grave on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
"The leadership failed, and it must go," said Riva Muskal, mother of the fallen soldier. "We don't need public inquiries to tell us that."
The criticism is flowing from several directions.
Combat soldiers say they were given conflicting orders, with no clear direction. Reservists say they suffered from serious shortages of equipment and indecisive leadership. The families of the 116 soldiers killed in the fighting wonder what their loved ones died for, especially the one-fifth of them who died in the two days after the cease-fire was agreed to, but before it was implemented on Aug. 14.
One of those killed on the final weekend was Uri Grossman, the 20-year-old son of celebrated Israeli author David Grossman, who had held a news conference three days earlier calling for an end to the fighting.
"We as a family have already lost the war," Grossman told mourners at his son's funeral.
And on the home front, more than 1 million residents of northern Israel are demanding to know why they had to flee their homes or hide underground in unsanitary bomb shelters as Hezbollah rockets rained down on them for more than a month, and why the government failed to provide enough food, water or financial compensation for their suffering.
"No leadership has ever before come out of a war so battered and shamed," said Yossi Sarid, a former leader of the left-wing Meretz Party who as a young man served as a political aide to the disgraced generation of 1973.
"There's nothing for it but to get rid of them," he said.
On Friday, the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper published a poll in which 63 percent of respondents said they wanted Olmert to step down. The paper said the poll, which had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points, represented a political "earthquake" that threatens to undermine Olmert's premiership only five months after he was elected.
Whether Olmert's government will fall depends on many factors, not least the complexities of the Israeli electoral system, which has brought together the right-wing, capitalist Olmert and the socialist former union leader Peretz as partners in a government whose central pledge -- withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the West Bank -- now appears to be off the national agenda.
Many observers see the growing protests about the war as a symptom of a deeper dissatisfaction affecting Israeli society.
"Thank you, war, for creating the protest movement," wrote commentator Gideon Samet in Haaretz, a daily newspaper. "The protest is very much needed because it has come, though quite belatedly, to a country that is going off the rails."
There were other big stories in Israel last week, which together illustrated the feelings of many commentators that the country has some soul-searching to do before it can confront external issues like Lebanon or the Palestinians.
President Moshe Katsav was questioned for hours by police investigating allegations that he forced a female secretary to have sex in his office. Justice Minister Haim Ramon resigned to face charges that he also forced himself upon female employees in his ministry.
Then there was the search for Kobi Alexander, founder of the high-tech firm Comverse, who has been indicted in the United States for fraud over earnings from questionable stock options. Last, there was a bill for $10 million for two months' work, submitted by lawyers called in to save an Israeli supermarket chain from collapse.
For many Israelis, the arrogance and failure of Olmert and Halutz and their refusal to resign are symptomatic of a country that has lost its sense of spiritual heart and historical mission, replacing them with the mindless pursuit of money, sex and power.
Samet said Israel has become "a country of proliferating poverty, arrogant millionaires, insensitive bank executives with fat salaries, Third World infrastructure, crumbling city centers, a miserable Knesset and broken promises. Only a war could have brought the revulsion to the surface."