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Sunday, 13 August 2006

Israelis not shy with opinions on cease-fire

NEWS ANALYSIS
Who benefits most from plan? Depends on whom you ask


SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Page A-11

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- When the Israeli Cabinet meets this morning, it is expected to endorse Friday's U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, calling for a cease-fire in Lebanon.

Yet the news of a prospective end to the battling is being greeted in Israel with mixed feelings.

There was relief at the prospect of an end to the fighting and the return of about a million Israelis who sat out much of the war in uncomfortable bomb shelters or fled from their homes in the north of the country to escape the Hezbollah bombardments. But it was coupled with dismay at the poor performance of the government and the army, reflected in plunging support for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the army chief of staff.

The guns are supposed to fall silent at 8 a.m. Monday. In the meantime, Israeli forces stepped up their push northward in Lebanon toward the Litani River on Saturday, suffering their worst casualties in the monthlong war -- 14 soldiers killed, perhaps as many as 100 wounded -- in an attempt to destroy as much Hezbollah materiel as possible before the cease-fire takes effect.

Israeli military leaders said they would continue to attack Hezbollah positions, and estimated their troops could remain in Lebanon for up to two weeks before the 15,000-strong U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, is ready to take control of the territory they have seized in the fighting.

"We don't know how much time will pass between the U.N. decision and its implementation," said Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the Israeli military chief of staff. "We will continue to fight Hezbollah until a new force is established there."

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israeli troops would remain until the international force arrived, and they would defend themselves if attacked.

"If anyone dares to use force against Israeli defense forces, we will see this as a violation of the cease-fire agreement," he said on Israel television.

Shimon Peres, Israel's deputy prime minister, hailed the Security Council resolution, saying it granted Israel "maximum legitimacy."

"This resolution endorses Israel the whole way," said Peres. "It says it was Hezbollah who attacked and has to return the kidnapped soldiers, and establishes a demilitarized zone with 15,000 Lebanese soldiers and a UNIFIL with more soldiers from different forces. These are achievements of the first order. The fact that Hezbollah caved in and stood behind the Lebanese government is no small thing. It did that not because it was strengthened, but because it was weakened ... by the Israel defense forces."

But Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu Party, described the Israeli diplomatic victory as "an illusion."

"The United Nations Security Council resolution essentially endorses Hezbollah as a legitimate force which will dominate the Lebanese army within a year," said Lieberman. "This is not a diplomatic solution, but a temporary cease-fire with all that implies."

Naomi Regan, a novelist who writes commentary for Israeli newspapers, described the leaders in Jerusalem as "the worst government in Israel's history." She charged they had "decided to accept a Security Council resolution which ensures that Israel's soldiers and her people have made their ultimate sacrifice for nothing: Our kidnapped soldiers will not be returned. Hezbollah will not be disarmed. And Israeli forces will be replaced by some U.N. force and a bunch of European anti-Semites who will allow Hezbollah to rearm."

Things looked little better for Olmert and his colleagues on the home front.

Eliezer Goldberg, a retired supreme court judge and state comptroller, said the government's treatment of the citizens in the north -- hundreds of thousands of whom were forced to wait out bombardments in cramped, unventilated and unsanitary bomb shelters for a month -- was "negligent and irresponsible."

Although Olmert's popularity soared in the early days of the war, the weekend opinion polls suggested the prime minister would have a hard time convincing Israelis he had handled his first major crisis successfully. Respondents to a survey for the Haaretz newspaper suggested 20 percent of Israelis believed Israel had "won" the war against Hezbollah, with 30 percent saying Israel was losing. The same poll saw Olmert's approval rating plunge to 48 percent, from 75 percent a month ago.

A survey for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily found 73 percent of Israelis considered the government's handling of the crisis facing the residents of the north to be "bad."

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