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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 August 2006, 06:42 GMT 07:42 UK
'Blame war' looms for Israel leaders
By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

A new war is about to erupt on Israel's home front; indeed the first skirmishes have already begun.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Knesset, 14 August 2006
The coming struggle may decide Ehud Olmert's political future

It will be a war of recriminations and blame, but it will also be a struggle to determine the true lessons of the fighting in Lebanon.

It is a struggle from which few of Israel's political or military leaders may emerge unbruised.

And it is a struggle that will determine the fate not just of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but also of his plan to withdraw Israeli settlers from significant parts of the occupied West Bank.

Almost from the outset, the government's conduct of this conflict confused the Israeli public and confounded many of the country's most experienced defence experts.

There was the initial reliance upon air power to deal with the Hezbollah missile threat.

Then there was a series of ground incursions a short way into Lebanon, which produced fierce skirmishes but little change to the overall strategic picture.

Then, almost at the same time as the United Nations was putting the final touches to a new Security Council resolution to end the fighting, there was Israel's last-minute push northwards towards the Litani River.

Barrage of criticism

The analysis of what went wrong and what went right has already begun in the Israeli press.

But this is only a prelude to what may come. There is a long tradition in Israel of searching, full-scale inquiries into national setbacks.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir
Golda Meir resigned after an inquiry into the 1973 Yom Kippur War

One obvious parallel is with the Agranat Commission, under the Chief Justice of Israel's Supreme Court. That was appointed to investigate why Israel was caught by surprise by the onslaught from Egypt and Syria at the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

As a result of its report, the then chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was forced to resign and other senior officers were removed from their posts.

Although largely vindicated, Israel's then Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned shortly afterwards.

Today, both Israel's military and political leadership have come in for a barrage of criticism.

Many members of parliament are calling for a committee of inquiry into the conduct of the war, most recently Yossi Beilin, the chairman of the opposition Meretz party.

A whole range of issues relating to the preparedness of the civil defence infrastructure are likely to be taken up by the State Comptroller, whose regular investigations have criticised readiness in the past.

Searching questions

Professor Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University, is a leading commentator on Israeli affairs and has spent most of the conflict in Israel.

Plumes of smoke rise above Tyre following an Israeli air strike, 10 August 2006
Questions may be asked about Israel's use of air power in Lebanon

"A full-scale judicial inquiry," he believes, "is more likely than not." But, one way or another, he says that the Olmert government's handling of this crisis is going to come under huge scrutiny.

Any inquiry, says Prof Feldman, will not be about the principle of a strong response to the initial Hezbollah attack.

For that, there remains a strong consensus. But he sets out a range of searching questions for which, he believes, there will need to be answers.

What exactly did Israel's military chiefs tell their political masters about what could be expected from an air assault against Hezbollah? When, a week or so into the conflict, air power was not halting the missile fire, why was the leadership's learning curve so steep?

And why, he asks, when limited ground operations proved equally ineffective was the decision to mount a major offensive taken only a short time before a likely cease-fire?

Key figures

Then there are questions about the IDF's intelligence.

Israel's Chief of Staff Dan Halutz
The performance of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz may be examined

It seems to have known about most of the modern weapons systems deployed by Hezbollah, with the possible exception of the Iranian-supplied anti-shipping missile that hit an Israeli vessel early on in the conflict.

But the IDF did not appear to realise the scale and complexity of Hezbollah's fortifications in southern Lebanon.

"To what extent did the IDF seek to adjust its doctrine and tactics to the real challenge facing it?" asks Prof Feldman.

Any inquiry is bound to examine the performance not just of Mr Olmert himself, but also of other key figures like Defence Minister Amir Peretz, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and other senior commanders.

The way the government was managed and the way the relationship between the military and the civilian leadership was handled is also certain to be a matter of debate.

Political legacy

This, though, is not just a battle over what happened in the recent past. It will be a battle for Mr Olmert's political project for the future - disengagement from more of the West Bank.

This project, according to many well-placed analysts, is the explanation for Israel's massive response to the Hezbollah attack.

With missiles flying into Israel from the Gaza Strip ever since Israeli troops withdrew a year ago, and now with missiles being fired from Lebanon (from which the UN is satisfied Israel withdrew in 2000), Mr Olmert determined that he was fighting for what may be his political legacy.

Without a strong and effective response to the Hezbollah missile threat he would, says Prof Feldman, find it impossible to convince the Israeli public that a further withdrawal would be in Israel's interests.

Indeed, Prof Feldman warns, creating a new consensus for a further pull-out could now be "mission impossible".


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