JERUSALEM - In a country where raucous debate is the norm, Israelis set aside differences during war. They even have an expression for it: “Quiet. We’re shooting.”
But the guns have gone silent, the debate has resumed and the wartime unity has shattered.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the military’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, are all facing fierce, even vitriolic criticism in a country accustomed to swift and decisive battlefield triumphs against Arab enemies.
At the Kfar Giladi kibbutz in northern Israel, an Israeli stood Thursday at a makeshift memorial for 12 Israeli soldiers killed by a rocket. (Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times)
“Because everyone served in the army, every Israeli thinks he’s a generalissimo,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “The achievements were less than expected, and the price was too high.”
He added: “From the beginning we should have set more modest goals. A lot of this agonizing is self-inflicted.”
A sizable number of Israelis have challenged the claims of their leaders that Israel won the war against Hezbollah.
“It’s not a victory at all,” said Ziona Dotan, 50, who returned to her rocket-damaged apartment in the hard-hit northern town of Kiryat Shmona on Wednesday. “It’s going backwards. They keep getting more weapons. I don’t see what we got out of this. Many people were killed, and what was it all for?”
An Israeli radio poll released Thursday found that 28 percent of the 513 respondents believed Israel won, 24 percent believed Hezbollah won, and 36 percent thought neither side came out on top. The poll had a margin of sampling error of 4.5 percentage points. Two polls released Wednesday showed similar results.
Israelis overwhelmingly supported the government decision to hit hard after Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid on July 12, killing three Israeli soldiers and seizing two more, who remain captive in Lebanon.
But as the fighting dragged on and the Israeli military faced tough resistance from Hezbollah in south Lebanon, criticism began to emerge. The most common themes: The politicians were indecisive. The military relied too much on air power. The ground offensive should have been started sooner, and on a larger scale.
“At the beginning of the war there was unity, but now it’s broken down because there were many mistakes, by the army and also politically,” said Yakov Hoshkover, 66, who works at a parking lot in the northern coastal town of Nahariya, which was repeatedly hit by Hezbollah rockets.
The grumbling turned into a flood of criticism after a United Nations Security Council resolution to stop the fighting was approved last Friday and a cease-fire took effect on Monday.
“There were many failures,” Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader, said in Parliament this week. “Failures in identifying the threat, failures in preparing to meet the threat, failures in the management of the war, failures in the management of the home front.”
Israel has often been led by former generals or others with long military experience, and Mr. Olmert and Mr. Peretz, who assumed their positions in recent months, had limited military backgrounds. Their performance during the war only raised more doubts.
Mr. Olmert’s approval rating, which shot up to 78 percent on July 19, one week into the war, fell to 40 percent in a poll published Wednesday in Maariv, a leading daily.
Fifty-three percent of those questioned said Israel should have kept on fighting, while 42 percent said Israel was right to agree to a cease-fire. The poll questioned 500 Jewish Israelis on Tuesday and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
In a front-page opinion article on Thursday, Nahum Barnea, the most prominent columnist in Yediot Aharonot, the country’s top-selling newspaper, called for the resignation of Mr. Peretz, a former trade union leader whose army service consisted largely of repairing tanks.
“The appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister was a crazy idea,” Mr. Barnea wrote.
With criticism of the war effort mounting, Mr. Peretz on Wednesday appointed a panel to review how the Defense Ministry and the military performed.
But that move also drew criticism from politicians who said Mr. Peretz quickly put together a handpicked panel with the aim of heading off a more thorough review by an independent body.
The Haaretz newspaper reported Thursday that Mr. Peretz said the military played down the threat of Hezbollah’s missiles when briefing him after he took office in May.
General Halutz, meanwhile, is also facing mounting calls to quit after a newspaper disclosed that he sold about $28,000 worth of mutual fund shares just hours after the Hezbollah raid on July 12.
The general said that he was intending to sell the shares for two weeks, and that his secretary placed a call to his bank on the morning of July 12, before the Hezbollah raid. The bank returned his call about three hours after the Hezbollah attack, and General Halutz said he took the call and placed the sell order as planned.
The explanation has not won him sympathy.
“There is an expectation that in the hour of decision, the chief of staff will dedicate all of his capabilities to conduct the war and not to manage his personal accounts for revenue and loss in the stock exchange,” Zevulun Orlev, a right-wing legislator, said in a statement calling on the general to step down.
Critics of the war effort have included many reserve soldiers who complained that they did not have proper equipment or provisions.
In one unusual incident, a group of reservists from the Alexandroni Brigade criticized and booed their commander, Col. Shlomi Cohen, at a meeting after they withdrew from Lebanon.
The discussion became tense as soldiers raised questions that included why they entered Lebanon during the day, rather than at night, and about a lack of food and water, Yediot Aharonot reported.
One reserve soldier, Yair Levy, 40, confronted the colonel, saying, “I left my house, my job, my three kids, and after two weeks in Lebanon, you say I have chutzpah because I asked for equipment and food.”
“If that’s the attitude and those are your answers, next time we won’t come,” he continued.
The colonel replied: “Don’t come. Don’t bother.”
Militants Killed Near Bethlehem
BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Friday, Aug. 18 (Reuters) Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinian militants near Bethlehem after a nearly two hour standoff on Friday, Palestinian security sources and witnesses said.
An Israeli Army spokeswoman said the militants, both Islamic Jihad members, had been shot and killed after they resisted arrest and opened fire on the soldiers.
Palestinian security sources and witnesses said more than 50 soldiers had been involved in the operation.
Dina Kraft contributed reporting from northern Israel for this article.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company