- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel’s bitter domestic debate in the wake of the war in Lebanon shows no signs of slowing, despite embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s call for a limited commission to review the government’s handling of the conflict.

The internal recriminations have targeted both Mr. Olmert and top commanders of the Israel Defense Forces, long seen as a bulwark of a Jewish state surrounded by larger, hostile Arab neighbors.

“They’ve destroyed the best army in the world,” said Assaf Davidi, a 28-year-old reservist who fought in the 34-day war. “I don’t trust these people to change the mistakes that were made.”

The debate raged even as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with top Israeli officials in Jerusalem yesterday and said he hoped to quickly double the contingent of U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon to 5,000.

Mr. Annan, on a diplomatic tour of the region, said he would ask Mr. Olmert in a meeting today to lift Israel’s seven-week air and sea blockade of Lebanon. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Mr. Annan Israeli forces would leave Lebanon in the next few weeks, once a “reasonable” number of international peacekeeping troops were in place.

Many Israelis said the country does not need to wait for Mr. Olmert’s investigation, proposed Monday, to accept the resignation of top leaders for failing to deliver the decisive military victory they promised over Hezbollah Shi’ite Muslim guerrillas based in southern Lebanon.

Yossi Beilin, head of the leftist Meretz Party in the Knesset, said yesterday Mr. Olmert “wavered and faltered in every step of this war,” while members of his party called the proposed inquiry a “fig leaf.”

“The way in which he conducted this war brings shame to his office,” Mr. Beilin said.

Uri Saguy, former army intelligence chief, said late last week the war effort lacked broad strategic vision and criticized the army for being disorganized and lacking discipline.

“The army has problems with organization and control,” he said. “These are disturbing things that require an inquiry.”

Criticism in Israel’s freewheeling press has also been harsh. Attila Somfalvi, a columnist with the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, said the main desire among ordinary Israelis today was for “revenge” against the country’s leadership.

“The north is bleeding, the public is turning its back on its leaders, the army is under attack, reserve soldiers are demonstrating outside the prime minister’s office and overall, there is a prevailing sense of no one to rely on — that everything is moving by sheer force of inertia.”

Ha’aretz columnist Bradley Burston offered a tongue-in-cheek nomination of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to replace Mr. Olmert and fill the leadership “vacuum” in Israeli politics.

“Olmert took Israel’s last remaining expectations of him and kicked them in the teeth, by ducking a full-out probe into his handling of the war,” Mr. Burston wrote.

Mr. Olmert named a commission headed by a former head of the Mossad intelligence agency. In doing so, he rejected calls for a “state inquiry,” which would be presided over by an independent judge with the power to issue subpoenas.

Many are comparing the trauma triggered by the indecisive campaign against Hezbollah to the soul-searching that followed after the country was caught by surprise by Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“Even though the casualties then were many times higher than they were in this war, the consequences for Israel of this failure are potentially greater,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute.

The perceived loss of deterrence has reopened a strategic debate in Israel over the wisdom of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Earlier this year, Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party won election on a promise to pull back from the West Bank in the absence of a peace treaty. But Mr. Olmert has announced the shelving of that goal.

Now, critics like opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu have argued that the withdrawal strengthens Israel’s enemies. A recent poll in Yediot Ahronot indicated that if elections were held today, the balance of power in Israel’s parliament would shift to right-wing parties and that Mr. Netanyahu would probably become prime minister.

c David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report.

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