Early Moment of Truth for Olmert

Times Staff Writer

The ability of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to carry out the main goal of his 2-month-old government -- setting permanent and defensible borders for Israel -- hinges on how well he handles the twin crises in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Olmert's plan to withdraw from much of the West Bank as a way of setting borders -- unilaterally, if necessary -- was the raison d'etre for his Kadima party during its successful election campaign this spring, though public support for the idea had dropped somewhat even before the latest outbreaks of violence.

The prime minister says he remains committed to that idea as the only way Israel and a Palestinian state will ever live in peace. But its prospects have been thrown into doubt by the two recent cross-border attacks by Islamic militants and the capture of three Israeli soldiers. The assaults may bolster the case of those Israelis who say unilateral pullouts without concessions are a boon to militants.

Olmert's ability to marshal support for his border plan will depend on whether Israelis are convinced, through the incursions into the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, that his government knows how to keep attackers at bay, analysts say.

What makes the job trickier is that he may find his options limited by the Israeli public's competing interests: a desire to secure borders and get the missing soldiers home safely, and broad opposition to a long-term return to Gaza or southern Lebanon.

How well Olmert manages to satisfy those interests will determine how much leeway he has in any moves toward the Palestinians, including plans for a unilateral withdrawal if negotiations go nowhere, analysts say.

In the short run, his political fortunes depend on the military.

"If the military succeeds in getting the abducted soldiers or creating a situation in which Hezbollah disappears from southern Lebanon, Olmert will get his way," said Gabriel Sheffer, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "He's in the hands of the military."

One measure of Olmert's performance will be whether Israelis perceive that he has stood up to demands for a prisoner swap that have been made in Gaza by the governing Hamas movement and in Lebanon by Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

"The stakes are very high," Sheffer said. "If there is failure and he surrenders to the demands of Nasrallah and Hamas, he might face big problems with his government. His life will be very hard."

There has been speculation in the Israeli media that Olmert might bring right-wing parties into his coalition to shore it up during the crises. But his main partner, the left-leaning Labor Party, could balk at any move that would reduce the chances for a substantive withdrawal of troops and settlers from the West Bank.

Olmert also faces resistance from conservatives to any territorial concessions. Although the right, including the Likud Party led by Benjamin Netanyahu, fared poorly in this spring's elections, it could mobilize public opinion against any pullbacks that are seen as leaving Israel vulnerable to cross-border attacks.

In a potentially worrying sign for Olmert, even some members of Kadima were voicing reservations this week about moving toward unilateral withdrawal.

The prime minister also has to convince the public that his government is up to the challenge of fighting simultaneously in two places from which Israel withdrew: Lebanon in 2000, and the Gaza Strip last summer. Complicating matters, Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, have come to the job with little military experience -- a fact that could limit their options for resolving the twin crises.

Olmert "may have felt that precisely because he doesn't have any strong experience in security decision-making, he had to take a tougher position," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli security analyst who co-edits www.bitterlemons.org, a website that seeks to foster dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel's show of force also may be a signal to its foes that Olmert, though new in office, is not to be taken lightly, said Gideon Doron, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. In a news conference Wednesday, Nasrallah appeared to mock the inexperience of Olmert and Peretz.

"Basically, they're telling him, 'Show us your best shot.' And they're showing them," Doron said.

Olmert so far has publicly ruled out negotiations to win back the captured soldiers. Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, was seized by Palestinian militants in a June 25 raid on southern Israel and taken into the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah guerrillas who staged an ambush along Israel's northern border Wednesday returned to Lebanon with two captive soldiers, identified Thursday by the military as Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26.

To many Israelis, the events were a sign that their government had lost its ability to deter attacks along the frontiers by not responding forcefully enough in the past to rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon and to raids by Hezbollah fighters based in Lebanon.

Those who opposed last summer's withdrawal, during which Israel evacuated Jewish settlers and soldiers from Gaza and a portion of the northern West Bank, point to the frequent firing of Kassam rockets from the coastal strip at southern Israeli towns such as Ashkelon as evidence that the move was a failure. They say Israel's unilateral departure has rewarded Hamas' past violence and given militants a free hand to carry out attacks that a continued military presence might have prevented.

Israeli troops in the West Bank guard settlements, operate checkpoints and carry out arrests that Israel considers a bulwark against attacks inside the country. The details of any further withdrawals from the region have yet to be worked out, including whether Israel would keep troops in the areas where settlements are evacuated.

"Anyone with foresight warned ahead of time that a unilateral withdrawal, without receiving anything in return and without an arrangement, would lead to the rise of Hamas and to rockets in the heart of Ashkelon, and the more we flee from terror, the more it will pursue us on all fronts," Netanyahu wrote Thursday in the Maariv newspaper.

Efraim Halevy, former chief of the Mossad spy agency who now heads the Center for Strategic and Policy Studies at Hebrew University, said Olmert faced the task of redrawing the map of potential threats to Israel's security via the ongoing military actions. For example, Halevy said, Hezbollah can no longer be permitted to maintain a de facto army in southern Lebanon and to attack across the border while the militants' presence goes unchallenged by the Lebanese government. Israel wants Lebanon to disarm the militants under the provisions of a United Nations resolution.

Israel's airstrikes on Thursday, including the bombing of Beirut's airport, appeared designed to take the battle to the rest of Lebanese society and its leadership, he said.

"The Lebanese cannot expect that in a situation like this they will not suffer at least the same damage on their side. There's a heavy penalty to pay," Halevy said. "The game board has to be adjusted to the behavior of Hezbollah."

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Key players in the conflict

Hezbollah

An Islamic political party and militia, it was formed in 1982 and is now the most powerful group in Lebanon. The U.S. government believes Hezbollah was involved in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and considers it a terrorist organization. The group gets major support from Iran and Syria and largely controls the southern part of Lebanon. Since Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has periodically fired rockets at towns in northern Israel.

Hamas

An Islamic political party and militia that has wide support among Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Its reputation as not being corrupt helped it win a majority of seats in Palestinian legislative elections in January. Hamas does not accept Israel's right to exist and became widely known by sponsoring suicide bombings in Israeli cities. It is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, Israel and the European Union.

Ehud Olmert

Israel's prime minister was elected in March on a platform that called for withdrawing some Israeli settlers from territories the country has occupied since the late 1960s and setting an eastern border for Israel, either through negotiations with the Palestinians or unilaterally. Unlike most recent Israeli prime ministers, he lacks a strong military background. Many Israelis consider the crises in Gaza and Lebanon major tests of his abilities.

Source: Los Angeles Times staff

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