BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Mid-East diary: A time of unease
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

The war in Lebanon last summer left Israelis with an unpleasant feeling of weakness - and little has happened in the last year to take that feeling away.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has had a year-long political hangover and his head must still be buzzing with the words of the official Winograd enquiry into the war.

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert
Olmert is bruised but seems likely to put up a determined defence
It said that primary responsibility for the war lay with the prime minister, Minister of Defence Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

Nothing surprising there; it is how the Israeli system works. But when the buck stopped on the desks of Mr Peretz and Gen Halutz, both were forced out of office.

Even though there was no love lost among the big three, the fact that Mr Olmert is the only one left standing must leave him feeling exposed, even though he has considerable political determination and experience, and in public at least, self-confidence.

He resisted calls for his resignation when the first half of the Winograd report came out earlier this year.

The publication date of the final half of the report has been put back, but when it emerges he will face another test.

Then and now

Most Israelis would say that they didn't lose the war, but didn't win it either. Forty-three Israeli civilians were killed, along with 117 soldiers, and 33 people were seriously wounded.

For the people of Israel, one of the most depressing aspects of the war, after the casualties themselves, was what it said about their military strength.

Israeli troops leaving Lebanon, August 2006
The Israeli army could not stop rocket fire or free the captured duo
The mighty Israeli army, one of the most technologically advanced forces in the world, had been unable to stop Lebanese guerrilla fighters from Hezbollah firing low-tech missiles into the north of their country.

The military failures of last summer bounced back into many Israeli minds in June, as they commemorated, and celebrated, the 40th anniversary of their victory in the 1967 Middle East war.

Then, Israel routed the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in six days.

In more than a month in 2006 Israel's enormous firepower did what the UN estimated was $3.6bn of damage to Lebanon, including the destruction of 80 bridges, 600km of roads and 900 factories, markets, farms and other commercial buildings.

It killed 1,187 Lebanese, mainly civilians, and wounded 4,092.

But it could not stop Hezbollah firing its rockets, and it could not rescue the two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah sparked off the fighting in the first place.

Self-defence

The new Israeli commanders say that lessons have been learnt and the army made stronger in the last year.

map
Traditionally, the way that the Israeli Defence Forces reasserts what it always refers to as its "deterrent capacity" when it has taken a knock is by winning a major military operation.

There has been a lot of loose talk this summer about a new war with Syria. It is hard to see how war could benefit either country, but the alarm some Israelis have felt about the rumours must be connected to a gnawing feeling that Arabs no longer fear their army in the way that they once did.

To mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the war, Mr Olmert defended himself by saying that any responsible people faced by the challenge he had last July would have taken the same decisions as his government.

He defended the outcome of the war - even though his own war aim of eliminating Hezbollah as a military force was not achieved. He said a new strategic reality had been created that should lead to fewer victims.

Formidable enemy

Certainly, a beefed-up UN force now patrols the border wire and the narrow country roads and battered villages of south Lebanon.

French Unifil peacekeeper and resident of Ayn Ebl, south Lebanon
South Lebanon has been relatively peaceful with UN support
Hezbollah took some heavy blows but was still able, in the eyes of its supporters, credibly to declare victory, simply because it kept on firing into Israel until a few minutes before the ceasefire took hold last August.

If another war began, and there is no sign that either side wants it at the moment, there is every reason to think that Hezbollah would still be a formidable enemy.

What should worry Israel is what the legacy of the war has done to destabilise Lebanon.

Hezbollah's attempt to translate its military strength into increased political power has led to a long, drawn-out, and tense, stand-off with the government.

The rest of the Middle East is hardwired into Lebanon's internal conflicts, because of the support that the government gets from the West and the backing Hezbollah has from Syria and Iran.

There is also a sectarian dimension; Muslim supporters of the anti-Syrian government are mainly Sunnis; Hezbollah and its ally Amal are the voice of Lebanon's Shias.

Renewed conflict?

At the beginning of the year there were armed clashes in the streets that all sides believed pushed the country close to some kind of new civil war.

Nervous leaders took steps to cool down their supporters, but there are real fears it could all come to a head again, perhaps around the time that a new president is due to be elected in late September.

A renewed civil conflict in Lebanon would send unpleasant, destabilising shockwaves out across the Middle East.

Some might argue that Lebanon is inherently unstable anyway, but before the war it looked to be in the best shape it had achieved at any time since before the civil war started in 1975.

Now it is hard to find anyone in Lebanon who feels confident about the future.

Could it be that the worst consequences of the summer war of 2006, for Lebanon, Israel and their neighbours, are yet to emerge?

SEE ALSO
Mid-East diary: Blair's new job
27 Jun 07 |  Middle East
Jeremy Bowen diary: Syria's son shines
29 May 07 |  Middle East
Israel wary of new Lebanon hostilities
12 Jul 07 |  Middle East



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific