Olmert Beset by a Mission Not Accomplished

Times Staff Writer

Israel’s costly and inconclusive war in Lebanon has triggered a round of internal recriminations so bitter that some observers question whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government can survive.

In the aftermath of weeks of combat and a cease-fire accord that appears to fulfill almost none of Israel’s war aims, a wave of public discontent threatens the careers of several senior Olmert associates, and perhaps even the prime minister, analysts say.

“The mood is very, very angry,” said historian Tom Segev. “Not because of the outbreak of the war, which many Israelis felt they could live with, but because of the sense that the results are not a victory at all.”

A chief target of public wrath is Amir Peretz, the neophyte defense minister whose performance has been pilloried as amateurish, overconfident and inconsistent. Polls last week indicated that more than half of Israelis thought he should be removed.


Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz is another potential casualty. The former air force commander’s battle tactics, including exclusive reliance on airpower in the war’s first weeks, were sharply criticized. Then he became embroiled in a scandal over the disclosure that he had sold off his stock portfolio hours after the start of combat.

Also damaged by the conflict’s outcome, though less seriously, was Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a close Olmert associate who had been seen as a rising star.

Commentators have generally concluded that Livni did a less-than-effective job of presenting the government’s rationale for the war to foreign leaders, forcing Israel to accept a premature end to the fighting. One newspaper article even picked apart her grammatical mistakes in English during appearances in New York, where she met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

All this has been a shocking turnabout for the prime minister, whose nearly 80% approval rating in the war’s initial weeks was halved after the cease-fire took hold.


“It really remains to be seen whether Olmert has the political wisdom and the political capital at this point to stabilize matters,” said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The full effect of popular discontent might not yet be evident, he said, because some Israeli troops are still operating in Lebanon and public criticism tends to be muted while soldiers remain under fire.

Olmert stepped in when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke, and then led the incapacitated leader’s Kadima party to victory in March elections. The new prime minister had been in office less than three months when successive crises broke out in the Gaza Strip in late June and Lebanon in mid-July.

In both cases, large-scale offensives were launched within hours of raids that killed Israeli soldiers and resulted in the capture of three others.


Many analysts now believe that Olmert and Peretz, both of whom have negligible military backgrounds, reacted without sufficient reflection, in part perhaps because they feared appearing weak in comparison with previous leaders who had strong battlefield credentials.

Somewhat paradoxically, critics have blamed Olmert both for relying excessively on top generals’ advice and for preventing commanders from carrying out a massive ground offensive until the final 48 hours of fighting, too late to affect the course of the conflict.

Criticism also is being aimed at Sharon, who has been comatose since Jan. 4 and has suffered a series of life-threatening medical setbacks in recent weeks. Sharon was at the helm for most of the six years since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in spring 2000.

He is being blamed now for intelligence failures and for failing to prevent Hezbollah from amassing an enormous arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, including long-range missiles and advanced antitank weapons that were used to lethal effect during the fighting.


Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw Israeli troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, which had been viewed as his principal legacy, is also under assault.

Months of attacks by Palestinian militants in Gaza using crude missiles that rarely caused death or serious damage were not sufficient to make people conclude that the pullout had been a mistake.

However, Hezbollah’s hail of nearly 4,000 much more powerful rockets, which killed dozens, injured hundreds and in effect shut down Israel’s northern tier, has caused a dramatic reappraisal of what had been the generally held view that unilateral hand-over of territory can lay the groundwork for peace.

“It became clear that the legitimacy of the recognized international border offers Israel no protection against terrorism,” prominent commentator Aluf Benn wrote last week in the daily Haaretz.


In light of that, Olmert’s aides have quietly acknowledged that his plan to turn over most of the West Bank to the Palestinians is extremely unlikely to proceed soon.

But the idea of uprooting most Jewish settlers from the West Bank and consolidating them in a few settlement blocks close to the pre-1967 border was the centerpiece of Olmert’s electoral campaign, and without it, many commentators believe his Kadima party now lacks a raison d’etre.

“The settlers feel very much vindicated by this turn of events,” said Segev, the historian. “There’s a huge, huge ‘I told you so’ hanging in the air.”

Olmert’s main challenger would seem to be former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the conservative Likud Party that Sharon abandoned a few months before being stricken.


However, under Netanyahu’s leadership, Likud won just one-tenth of the 120 parliament seats in March, its worst election result ever. Because of that, even the fortunes of war might not be sufficient to vault him back into contention.

Netanyahu is also proceeding with caution in light of a reputation for political opportunism that has hurt him in the past. For most of the war, he was careful not to criticize the government. However, after the cease-fire took effect last week, he told lawmakers that there had been “many failures” in the conflict’s planning and execution.

Army reservists’ accounts of being sent into battle with inadequate training and equipment have added to the public fury. One reservist told Israeli media that supply lines were so poorly organized that thirsty soldiers were forced to strip water canteens from the corpses of Hezbollah fighters.

“With the reservists now returning to their jobs and daily lives, they will be talking with families and colleagues about what happened to them, and this will affect public thinking as well,” said Inbar, the analyst.


Some commentators believe Olmert’s government has no chance of serving out its four-year term, even if it can survive in the short term.

Commentator Yoel Marcus wrote in Friday’s editions of Haaretz that no Israeli government in memory had so swiftly squandered its stature and popularity.

Still, a parliament that has been in office less than four months may be unwilling to hand Olmert a vote of no confidence and thus in effect dissolve itself.

A Cabinet shake-up might be enough to mollify the public for the moment. But even if Peretz were replaced as defense minister, he probably would be given another senior portfolio because of his standing as the leader of the Labor Party, which won the second-largest bloc of parliamentary seats.


Calls have been growing for establishment of a commission to investigate the conduct of the war. Such a panel would be empowered to dismiss senior officials.

Peretz, apparently seeking to forestall such a step, announced last week that he was appointing a committee headed by respected former army Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak to investigate military decision-making during the conflict. But that step only served to spark more criticism.

“It’s not right that a minister who was among the decision-makers in time of war would be the one to nominate members of an inquiry to investigate it,” said Zehava Galon of the leftist Meretz-Yahad party.

Analysts say it would be perilous for Olmert’s government to publicly pit itself against the military establishment, even if it is generally accepted that senior commanders devised a flawed battle plan.


“Israelis consider the army to be part of their family -- because it is literally true in so many cases,” Segev said. “People can easily turn their backs on a given government. But the army will always have the public’s loyalty and support.”