Amid War Questions, Olmert Seen Vulnerable


With a cease-fire in place since Monday after 32 days of fighting, finger pointing has begun in Israel over the conduct of the war, with some questioning whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government will be able to survive the close scrutiny to which it will be subjected.

"The government could fall if its legitimacy is undermined and if any of the major charges against it are supported," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. One of the charges is that the major ground assault launched after the cease-fire resolution was approved by the United Nations Security Council last Friday evening primarily was for public relations purposes after Israeli columnists began calling for Olmert’s ouster. In the 48 hours that followed, 33 Israeli soldiers were killed and many others badly wounded.

"What was so important?" asked Steinberg of the last two days of battle.

Olmert has acknowledged "deficiencies" in the way the war was conducted.

Critics question why the military’s detailed plan of attack (which included a ground offensive) was not implemented at the outset of the war. And why did the war end without the return of the two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping by Hezbollah terrorists July 12 triggered the conflict?

Avshalom Vilan, a Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party, is among those calling for a formal state commission of inquiry into the conduct of the war.

"If you decided to open a war with Hezbollah, you have to think three steps ahead," he said. "What happened is that the Israeli military didn’t have an exit strategy." He also questioned why there was not a more effective plan to evacuate citizens in the path of Hezbollah missiles.

"What concerns me more is the Palestinians," Vilan said. "Will they start smuggling weapons through the Philadelphi corridor tomorrow and then start firing on Ashkelon?"

Despite the calls for a commission of inquiry, Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said it is too early to know whether Israel’s "overall strategic goal was or was not achieved."

"The extremely bad scenario would be the collapse of the cease-fire and Hezbollah returning to the south," he said. "Then the government would be in big trouble. On the other extreme, if an effective multinational force [is put in place, as called for by the UN resolution], Hezbollah is kept at bay, and the soldiers are returned, Olmert can say we’ve achieved our goals."

Even if a national commission of inquiry is established, Wilzig suggested that "unless it uncovered some really bad decision-making on the part of the government, I don’t see it wounding the government."

But others are comparing the government’s handling of the war to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel misread the military preparations of its Arab neighbors and was caught off guard by their attack. A commission of inquiry faulted several military leaders and led to the resignation in 1974 of Prime Minister Golda Meir.

"The similarity can’t be missed," said one observer. "We’re seeing now in Israelis the same sense of despair experienced at that time. Some people felt this war endangered the state itself. One million Jews became refugees in their own country. Somebody will have to pay. It will take a few months, but then it may be the end of Olmert and [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz."

Israelis say that an effective prime minister is one who is trusted by Jews and feared by Arabs. That is why Olmert may decide to replace the inexperienced Peretz with a respected military leader, according to Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. "The sooner the better," he said, "because now the extremist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and states like Iran are smelling blood. That means Israel is going to be on the defensive."

Ben-Meir predicted a renewed challenge for Israel soon, noting that "this was a war of perception that Hezbollah won, and that is what resonates today in the Arab street. Hezbollah was able to come back and fire its rockets to the very last day."

He argued that it is necessary for Israel to "reassert its military preeminence for the sake of peace. An Israel that is, rightly or wrongly, perceived as weak, will simply invite more serious military challenges because Israel’s real enemies like Iran are relentless."

"Convergence? Dead."

But Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, insisted that Olmert and Peretz "realize the dangers and the shaky chairs on which they sit" and are prepared to ride out the storm. "It’s not the first earthquake they’ve faced," he said. "As long as they stick together, it’s almost impossible for them not to stay in power; the wave will pass."

"They are going to build the [security] fence and remove the illegal outposts, but they won’t be able to carry out the convergence plan," he added, referring to Olmert’s proposal to move thousands of Israeli West Bank Jews into the major West Bank settlement blocs.

Recent polls show that half of the Israeli population now opposes the convergence plan, the centerpiece of Olmert’s campaign, and even the prime minister’s Kadima party has lost interest in the plan in the aftermath of this war.

Tamir Sheafer, an associate professor of political science at the Hebrew University, said this situation creates "a strategic problem" for Kadima, which now needs to find a new policy to justify its reason for being. One option would be to launch into negotiations with the Palestinians, he said, something Olmert’s Labor Party coalition partner would favor.

"But the picture would then become more complicated because that would make Kadima similar to Labor and people would ask why vote for Kadima," he said. Sheafer pointed out that Kadima, unlike many other political parties, has no local branches and that if it is not able to create a new reason for being, "it may disappear."

One of the first heads to roll in the aftermath of the war may be Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who admitted to selling $30,000 of his investment portfolio on July 12: only three hours after the abduction of the two Israeli soldiers. The Israeli newspaper Maariv said Halutz conducted the transaction as the country’s top political and military leaders met to discuss a possible declaration of war. He was quoted as saying the sale had nothing to do with the possibility of an imminent war but rather because he had recent financial losses.

One Israeli analyst called Halutz’s actions a "moral failure" that will ultimately cost him his job.

But Sholom Aronson, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University, said the timing is such that it is more important to determine what went wrong with the military campaign than to replace the chief of staff now. He said a key problem was a Russian-made anti-tank missile, the Koronet, which is a highly sophisticated state-of-the-art missile.

Aronson said that captured tanks will be disassembled and studied, and that Israel needs a solution to [Hezbollah’s] short-range rockets.

"To replace the chief of staff at this time is not generally done unless he is implicated in a criminal offense," he said.

If the U.N. resolution is carried out and 15,000 Lebanese troops and 15,000 U.N. troops are put into position in the 18 miles between the Lebanese border and the Litani River, "it will be a major setback for Hezbollah," according to Aronson.

Steinberg, the political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, agreed and added that "there seems to be some international seriousness" in carrying out the U.N. resolution.

While it seems clear that neither the Lebanese nor UN forces will seek to disarm Hezbollah, Steinberg believes that "the interest in stability and opposing Islamic terror is stronger than in the past and it may hold this international force together."

He also noted that after Israel said it considers [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah to be a legitimate target, "he did not emerge from his hiding place and Israel’s statement did not bring any international protests. And everybody is talking about preventing Syria and Iran from rearming Hezbollah."