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28 August 2006

Israel: What happens next?

The left is in disarray and the right has nothing fresh to offer. All Israelis can do is wait for a

By Gideon Lichfield

Horror stories from the war in Lebanon have become a favourite topic around Israeli dinner tables. But not tales of desperate firefights and hair-raising encounters with Hezbollah. They are of reserve soldiers who had to buy or borrow bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles, steal food from shops in Lebanese villages, ask relatives and friends to send them supplies, or go to combat in jeans because there weren’t enough uniforms; stories of those who came across the bodies of Hezbollah fighters wearing better equipment than their own, who had to scurry around enemy territory as orders changed from hour to hour. In a small, loquacious country where most people do reserve army duty and everybody knows somebody who was called up to the war, every last shortcoming of the army’s performance is being aired and chewed over.

That there were so many shortcomings is because the reserves, most now agree, were called up too late, giving little time for either training or logistics. But a degree of chaos in the reserves (as opposed to the regular troops) is not new. The reason Israelis are so angry about it is because they see no larger victory.

Israel’s incursion has not brought back the two soldiers who Hezbollah captured. Nor has it achieved what became the justification for such a large-scale campaign, namely to eliminate the threat that Hezbollah had built up in the six years since Israeli forces last abandoned Lebanon. Hezbollah still has men in a lot of the area south of the Litani River. It still has thousands of rockets. The huge Israeli push towards the Litani in the two days before the ceasefire led to a heavy cost in soldiers’ lives but no obvious military gain. And with the ink barely dry on UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for disarming Hezbollah and keeping it out of southern Lebanon, Lebanese leaders were already making it clear that their army, at least, will not even attempt either of those tasks. If the army does not co-operate, it is hard to see a few thousand UN peacekeepers doing the job in its stead.

Arguably, Israeli politicians’ biggest mistake was to create the impression that deterring Hez bollah meant defeating it. Some are trying to put a brave face on the outcome by arguing that although Hezbollah can claim victory merely for having survived, in fact it (and its main backer, Iran) will clearly think twice before provoking Israel again. Moreover, Lebanon’s government will now know that leaving Hezbollah to its own devices, as it did for years, carries a price.

True. But that argument has come too late. Among ordinary Israelis, anger is growing at the government for fighting (incompetently) a worthless war and obtaining a worthless deal. That anger is focusing on everything from the poor preparations to a series of scandals enveloping several ministers, including a property deal by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself.

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A commission of inquiry will find some scapegoats for the war, and relations with Leba non will probably settle back into an uneasy truce for a while. But in policy terms, Israel finds itself at an impasse similar to the one it faced three years ago.

At that time, the raging Palestinian intifada had convinced mainstream Israelis that neither the right’s insistence on continued occupa- tion nor the left’s mantra of peace talks was tenable any longer. Ariel Sharon’s radical solution was a scheme for ending the occupation without peace talks: unilateral withdrawal, which he road-tested with the Gaza disengagement last year. Olmert’s election platform was to apply the same principle to the West Bank. But this no longer looks tenable, either. Nobody will support a plan that involves leaving land without being able to guarantee that militants there won’t attack Israel later.

So where next? That is far from clear. Support for peace talks is even more feeble than it was three years ago, thanks to the rise of Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority. The left-wing parties themselves are in a shambles: Labour’s chairman, Amir Peretz, is tainted as the defence minister who oversaw the Lebanon fiasco, while the more left-wing Meretz-Yachad is on the verge of a split over whether it should have supported the war.

The right, however, is little better off: the Likud party under Binyamin Netanyahu has no novel ideas to offer, and the religious pro- settlement parties already have a clearly defined constituency. The one party likely to benefit is Avigdor Liberman’s populist “Israel Is Our Home”, whose typical voter believes that the army should have finished off Hezbollah by pulver ising southern Lebanon. For now, all that Israel can do is wait for a new concept as radical as Sharon’s was in its time.

Gideon Lichfield is Jerusalem correspondent of the Economist

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