Israel's sense of defeat

Observations on the Middle East

On Monday 14 August, the first day of the UN-sanctioned ceasefire in Lebanon and Israel, the Israeli nation gathered around its televisions to listen to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert preaching to the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Israelis have become accustomed to Olmert's shrill voice and to the false confidence that betrays fear and anxiety.

Olmert's Israel has lost the war, and even those who claim that it has not lost it are not in any mood to celebrate.

Most intelligent Israelis are aware that the government has let Hezbollah dictate the terms of the hostilities as well as their political outcome. While Israel's sovereignty has been violated - and the kidnapping incident that sparked the conflict was severe - it seems that this has not justified the destruction inflicted on Lebanon, the paralysing of northern Israel, the deaths of so many innocent civilians and scores of young soldiers. The surprisingly clumsy and cumbersome Israel Defence Forces are no longer the imposing deterrent they once were, and Hezbollah's fighters have managed to convince even the most sceptical Israelis that 3,000 well-organised and committed people can cause a huge amount of damage, both physically and psychologically. The Globes-Smith opinion poll of 14 August was unambiguous: 52 per cent of Israelis think that the war was a failure.

The consequences for Olmert and his ruling Kadima party will soon emerge. Olmert's career is almost doomed, even though his particular creed - a combination of cruelty towards the Arabs and sheepish obedience to Washington - still enjoys the support of the country's powerful upper and middle classes. He plunged Israel into a conflict before he had the time to cement his status as prime minister and successor to Ariel Sharon. The Israeli public was united in its support of this war, but is now seeking a scapegoat with the same zeal that it displayed during the military operations.

Unfortunately, the national debate revolves around military mistakes and failures, neglecting the misguided mindset that led to a massive bombing campaign instead of internationally brokered talks with Hezbollah and, perhaps, Hezbollah's Syrian and Iranian backers.

Observers in the west find it difficult to understand that the Israeli prime minister has no real political party at his disposal. Kadima is a parliamentary faction rather than a party, let alone a mass movement. Founded in 2005, it has no established tradition, no elected bodies, no real comradeship, no ideology and no Ariel Sharon. The fear of the right-wing Likud party and its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, is the only common denominator that gives Olmert's fragile coalition with Labour any meaningful political force. It may not prove sufficient, and Netanyahu, the definitive demagogue, has already begun to turn the sense of defeat now apparent in Israel to his advantage.

There is very little indication of a dovish revival here in the wake of the fiasco that was the Second Lebanon War. Criticism of Olmert's decision to expand the war despite the rapidly approaching negotiated ceasefire; the realisation that his conduct has been arrogant and reckless; an understanding of the futility of armed conflicts in our volatile region - these are still minority creeds here. The anger, the anti-Arab sentiment and the unprecedented hatred of the left and our Arab citizens aroused by the conflict play into Netanyahu's hands. These factors are driving many frightened people of the left into Olmert's camp, which further weakens the ranks of those thoughtful Israelis who seek an alternative to the narrow domain of Olmert's nationalist centre and Netanyahu's heartless, extreme-right-wing politics.

Haim Baram is a writer and journalist based in Jerusalem