Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Many Israelis see a strategic defeat

In Israel, critics condemn strategy behind war

BOSTON GLOBE | August 16, 2006

By Anne Barnard and Matthew Kalman, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- Scathing indictments of the way the Israeli government and its military have conducted the longest war in the nation's history filled the country's newspapers and airwaves yesterday, as Israelis began to feel safe enough to return to their national pastime of blistering political debate.

Israeli analysts across the political spectrum branded the war against Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon ``an embarrassing defeat" for a ``semi-rookie government" that should have known the goals it set for itself were ``impossible to achieve."

Ha'aretz, one of Israel's leading daily newspapers, summed up the national mood by presenting readers with an online poll that asked: ``Who should resign?"

A popular nominee was the army's chief of staff, Dan Halutz, who yesterday admitted selling his entire stock portfolio, worth $27,600, in the hours between Hezbollah's initial attack and the first Israeli bombardment of Beirut.

On the second day since July 12 without Hezbollah rocket attacks, many Israelis looked around and declared themselves sorely disappointed with a war that forced a million people to flee their homes in northern Israel and killed 150 Israelis and more than 800 Lebanese. The war inflamed anger across the Muslim world -- without dealing a decisive blow to Hezbollah or bringing home the two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping by the Lebanese militant group triggered the fighting.

The outrage came from the left and the right.

``We simply blew it," was the headline on a column in left-leaning Ha'aretz by Yoel Marcus, who asked, ``What makes an army -- or its chief of staff, to be exact -- get up one fine morning and persuade a semi-rookie government to launch an all-out war at the drop of a hat because two of our soldiers were kidnapped?"

``The question is whether [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert posed the right questions and the army gave him truthful answers. Did Olmert ask, for example, whether the army was capable of knocking Hezbollah out of commission, or at least disarming it?"

Yossi Klein Halevi, a right-leaning columnist and an analyst at Jerusalem's Shalem Center, lamented that Israel's leaders squandered ``an unprecedented green light from Washington . . . and a level of national unity and willingness to sacrifice unseen here since the 1973 Yom Kippur War," by not ordering a ground offensive.

``This is a nation whose heart has been broken," he declared in a column for The New Republic, ``by our failure to uproot the jihadist threat, which will return for another and far more deadly round."

It was a far cry from the 80-percent-plus approval ratings that Israelis gave the war at its outset -- 58 percent now say the country achieved minimal goals, if any -- or the ambitious goals that Olmert laid out on July 17, five days into the war, when he promised to wipe out Hezbollah from southern Lebanon.

``We will search every compound, target every terrorist who assists in attacking the citizens of Israel, and destroy every terrorist infrastructure, everywhere," he said then.

And Olmert faced an awkward comedown from the speech he gave Aug. 2 -- what some Israelis are calling a ``Mission Accomplished" moment, similar to President Bush's speech in front of an overly optimistic banner less than two months into the occupation of Iraq -- in which Olmert declared, ``Never again will they be able to threaten this country with missile fire."

Instead, Hezbollah managed to fire scores of missiles a day for nearly two more weeks, including 250 it launched on the last day before the cease-fire early Monday.

``If a lightweight boxer is fighting a heavyweight champion and is still standing in the 12th round, the victory is his -- whatever the count of points says," wrote Uri Avnery, a veteran political analyst and peace activist.

The flood of criticism gathered momentum a day after Bush declared that Hezbollah had been defeated and a cease-fire took effect under a UN Security Council resolution that on paper gives Israel results that it has dreamed of for years -- but that now, after the war's sacrifices, seems insufficient to many Israelis.

The resolution adopted Friday calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed, for the Lebanese Army to deploy in the southern Lebanon area where the militia has operated with impunity, and for an existing UN force there to be expanded to 15,000 troops. Olmert said Monday that the Israeli offensive had ended Hezbollah's ``state within a state," and had ``changed the strategic balance against Hezbollah."

But serious questions remain about whether the resolution will be implemented. The Lebanese government is weakened and afraid to confront Hezbollah, and the militant group's main backers, Iran and Syria, are likely to act as spoilers in the vague ``interim period" in which Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters will uneasily coexist in southern Lebanon.

Many Israelis had felt frustrated before the war broke out because unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year did not stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets into Israel and capturing a soldier in a cross-border raid June 25 that triggered a re-invasion of the coastal territory.

A former defense minister from the right-wing Likud party, Moshe Arens, declared, ``The war, which according to our leaders was supposed to restore Israel's deterrent posture, has within one month succeeded in destroying it. That message will not be lost on Hamas, the Syrians, and the Iranians."

The Syrian and Iranian leaders made triumphal speeches yesterday, declaring that Hezbollah had scored a great victory over Israel that would derail US plans for a ``new Middle East."

Israeli military officials said that while they were impressed by Hezbollah's tenacity and surprised by some of its weapons, such as the missile that hit an Israeli ship early in the war, they knew about its advanced communications, elaborate tunnel networks, and tens of thousands of missiles.

``We knew it, but it's different when you see it on the battlefield," Brigadier General Ido Nehushtan told reporters Monday. ``It's not a surprise, but when you see it on the ground, it's impressive."

Still, Israelis are used to lightning victories, as in the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel defeated three Arab armies and captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip . Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, a former top intelligence officer, said the military's war plan factored in 200 rockets being shot daily at Israeli civilians.

If the military knew that, then the government may not have asked the right questions before going to war, Dan Meridor, a former Likud minister who recently drafted a report calling on the army to adapt to guerrilla warfare, told Israeli radio yesterday.

The government, he said, should have considered ``whether we should have been satisfied with a sharp attack, perhaps kidnap someone in return and then stop," and should have asked whether it was possible to stop the rocket fire or defeat Hezbollah militarily, ``things which we should have known from the beginning it would be impossible to achieve."

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