Published on Thursday, July 27, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
Dissent Grows in Israel Over Lebanon
by Ian Black
The government of the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is facing a barrage of criticism over its handling of the war in Lebanon, with questions being raised about the decision to attack Hizbullah, mounting military losses, continuing missile strikes on northern Israel, and disquiet about Lebanese civilian casualties.
Israel has yet to confirm reports of 12 soldiers killed in heavy fighting around the south Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, but analysts in Jerusalem said fatalities on that scale are likely to bring pressure from the army and the public for a significant change of tack.
Two weeks into the fighting, growing unease about a wide range of war-related issues has burst into the open with a series of anxious comments by politicians, former officers and leading experts and pundits.
Few Israelis are protesting against the war, as they did in their hundreds of thousands after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Apart from small demonstrations by Israeli Arabs and Jewish leftwingers, there is broad support for hitting back at the Shia guerrillas after their border raid and abduction of two Israeli soldiers. But what is becoming clear is the deep concern about the conduct and progress of the campaign.
Moshe Arens, a hawkish former Likud defence minister, issued a stark warning that Hizbullah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, could emerge from the conflict undefeated. "This will be a disaster for Israel," he told the Ha'aretz newspaper. "Nasrallah will be seen as someone who fired thousands of katyushas at Israeli communities for weeks and came out unscathed."
Experts say Israel's much-vaunted intelligence services have underestimated Hizbullah capabilities, especially in not knowing it had an Iranian-made missile capable of hitting an Israeli naval vessel off Beirut.
The air force has also come under scrutiny after the loss of three US-built Apache helicopters and an F16 jet, with one helicopter reportedly downed by friendly fire. Five Israeli soldiers have also been killed by friendly fire.
Wall-to-wall TV and radio talk shows have wheeled out reserve or former officers highlighting the shortcomings of those running the show, bringing defensive responses from the IDF general staff and even charges of disloyalty in wartime.
But Ze'ev Schiff, the highly respected doyen of Israeli military commentators, and author of the definitive history of the 1982 war, put it bluntly: "Israel is far from a decisive victory and its main objectives have not been achieved."
Another veteran correspondent, Eitan Haber, wrote in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot: "This is neither the time nor the place in the middle of serious fighting, but when this is all over the IDF is going to have take a good look at itself."
The main worry is that Hizbullah can still launch 80-100 rockets a day despite thousands of Israeli sorties over Lebanon. Haifa, Carmiel and other northern areas were hit again on today. Israeli ground operations have inflicted losses on the guerrillas in Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbeil, but none have been mounted in the Tyre area further west from where missiles are being launched at Haifa. Hizbullah has been damaged but is far from crippled. Supplies from Iran and Syria are getting through despite a blockade.
The subtext of much criticism is that Mr Olmert and his defence minister, the Labour party leader, Amir Peretz, have little military experience and none of the stature of the former prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Many of their closest advisers are untried novices - "raw recruits" in the words of one pundit.
Commentators are also questioning whether key government decisions were thought through in the context of an overall strategy. These include the immediate response to the July 12 attack, the bombing of Beirut international airport despite warnings this would trigger retaliation against Haifa, and the destruction of Hizbullah HQ in southern Beirut. They say the government's response has been to shift its goals and lower public expectations.
The original objective of "breaking Hizbullah" has been quietly watered down to "weakening Hizbullah". Mr Olmert's sudden agreement to the deployment of a multinational force on the border reflects reluctant recognition that Israel cannot itself disarm the Lebanese militia and needs a foreign buffer.
International focus on civilian deaths in Lebanon - roughly 10 times the number suffered by Israel - has badly undermined Israel's case abroad, despite the unwavering support of the US. Its own propaganda efforts have been poor and uncoordinated.
"Even before we know who will win this campaign we can state with certainty that Israel has suffered a terrible propaganda defeat in Lebanon and the Arab world," wrote the Ma'ariv columnist Jacky Hugi. "One country cannot destroy another without explaining to the neighbour the logic behind its actions. From being our silent allies the Lebanese have become the victims of our blind pounding."
On top of all that there are bitter complaints about poor conditions in air raid shelters in the north, the failure to compensate those whose property has been damaged by enemy action and the confusion caused by a plethora of officials giving out conflicting messages. Some want a single "war spokesman" to be responsible for all government information, a concept which worked well in the 1991 Gulf war, when Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israel.
Nahum Barnea, the country's leading political commentator, warned earlier this week that the Israeli public had exaggerated expectations of what might emerge from this crisis. "Israel is like the guy who promised to jump off the big top at the circus but freezes the moment he gets up there. 'Why isn't he jumping,' the spectators ask. 'No question of jumping,' the guy replies. 'The only question is how I can get down'."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006