- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

With the Hezbollah War in recess, Israelis have returned to their favorite pastime: whacking each other. Though he’s been in office for only a few months, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s postwar poll numbers at home recently plunged to single digits, historic lows even in that hyper-critical nation. At least that’s better than Amir Peretz, the defense minister, who essentially has flat-lined.

If there’s one thing that unites politicians everywhere, it is the instinct to survive and hang onto power. And if Mr. Olmert is to have any chance to succeed in that uphill effort, he must understand and address the motivation behind the vast hostility that has engulfed him, in some ways unfairly.

The most obvious reason for the harsh verdict Israelis give their leaders is the lack of clarity with respect to the outcome of the five-week Hezbollah War. Israelis initially supported overwhelmingly Mr. Olmert’s decisive response to Hezbollah’s indiscriminate rocket launches, the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of eight more, especially since his exalted predecessors had essentially turned the other cheek in vain by ignoring repeated Hezbollah provocations following Israel’s complete evacuation of Lebanon in 2000.

There is much for which Mr. Olmert can and should be held accountable, but it is worth asking again the question Israelis, and much of the world, seem to have answered prematurely when judging their prime minister: On what basis did Israel supposedly lose the war?

Because Hezbollah still exists? Eliminating it was an impossibly high standard, and Mr. Olmert’s government was foolish in the extreme to imagine, let alone openly suggest, such a goal. Falling short surely contributed to the bad PR Israel suffered.

Because Hezbollah’s wily leader, Hassan Nasrallah, eluded assassination? That is hardly Mr. Olmert’s fault.

Because Hezbollah, even on the 34th day, was able to launch Katyushas at will? Israelis themselves make the case that it only demonstrates Israeli restraint, as it could have carpet-bombed South Lebanon instead of concerning itself with even greater civilian casualties, the major contributor to the bad PR.

Because Hezbollah today is being resupplied as quickly as possible by Iran and Syria? That’s the predictable reality, but the larger the scale of that effort, the greater the proof of Israel’s success, not failure. The complicity and guilt in this endeavor rests primarily with the United Nations and Lebanon, not Mr. Olmert, though surely he and most Israelis are not surprised.

In fact, Hezbollah suffered significant losses. Because it conducts its military affairs with consummate secrecy, never allowing reporters freedom of movement or permitting independent verification of facts on territory it controls, the world remains in the dark about damage done and casualties incurred. Its tight management — the press’ euphemism for intimidation — results in strict message discipline and PR supremacy; it also raises many serious questions about why Western media do not express more outrage and suspicion.

Two months after fighting ended, no reliable account exists of Hezbollah soldiers killed in battle, unless one accepts the Party of Houdini’s invention that a resident of South Lebanon, who may have an occasional day job as a plumber but who goes off regularly to train in a militia, receives financial support from that militia and then fights as a soldier in a war for that militia, is actually a civilian.

But whatever damage was inflicted on Hezbollah does not negate the merit of the most serious arguments heard on the Israeli street. While it was understandable that Mr. Olmert wanted to throw out the prepared script he inherited, Israel was not entirely ready for the fight.

The IDF’s lack of readiness, and especially that of the reserves — largely a consequence of the sharp differences in the nature of the missions in fighting Hezbollah as opposed to the policing roles required in the West Bank and Gaza — is a problem two generations in the making. In short, the occupation — justified or unjustified — shaped Israel’s military in ways that left it unprepared to deal with a lethal adversary that turned out to be the most sophisticated and well-trained militia ever confronted by Israel. If ever there was a vivid illustration of why military planners should avoid fighting the last war, even a battered Hezbollah proved it was a far different enemy than the PLO Israel encountered in Lebanon more than 20 years earlier.

The current climate of unvarnished introspection is a typical and healthy quality of Israeli democracy. But some of the anti-Olmert sentiment seems misdirected. It would be right to criticize the fact that there was insufficient intelligence about Hezbollah’s true capabilities, especially its physical infrastructure. But if Mr. Olmert was in the dark, so apparently was Israel’s vaunted intelligence community upon whom the prime minister relied. It would be right to criticize some of the indecision by Mr. Olmert and his fellow civilian class, but that is hardly unique to this war. And while it might be right to criticize Israel’s consistently inferior PR skills, it is the virtue of openness and transparency even in war that makes it difficult to compete with a highly centralized, disciplined foe engaged in a massive disinformation campaign.

However, it is the preparedness issue, closely connected to the occupation quagmire, that is at the heart of the palpable unease within Israeli society in the aftermath of the Hezbollah War. While Mr. Olmert inevitably is the handy scapegoat, the public is conducting a soul searching that might allay the tension for which it is collectively responsible. For Israel remains a vulnerable country trying to deter existential threats (yes, even an undeclared nuclear power can find itself in such a predicament) while bogged down in the daily grind of an occupation it desperately needs, and finally wants, to escape.

The growing sense among Israelis — accelerated by Ariel Sharon’s abandonment of the settlement policy he authored — that the nearly 40-year-long occupation has had a corrosive effect on the IDF’s readiness to deal with larger existential dangers, is the bitter pill creating the unprecedented mood of negativism that Mr. Olmert is trying to outlast.

Mr. Olmert’s only chance to recover fully, and to rejuvenate the IDF while he’s at it, is to cut through this destructive dilemma by doing what he already knows is essential: seek an accommodation with the Palestinians that allows Israel to divest itself of almost all the West Bank, and liberate itself from the role of occupier.

After a long public career advocating for a settlement policy that took Israel down a ruinous path, Mr. Olmert also was among the first on Israel’s right to reverse course and argue for disengagement — not only in Gaza, but in most of the West Bank.

Just five months ago Israelis credited Olmert for his political bravery and foresight in paving the way for all but the most extreme to finally give up the dream of a Greater Israel. His list of accomplishments does not include the feats of military prowess Israelis are said to value most, but before the Hezbollah War the public saw in him someone who has evinced in recent years an independent streak, a willingness to reconsider old positions and adapt to new realities, to reassess policies that no longer meet Israel’s security needs.

Now, after a war that Hezbollah leader Nasrallah concedes was a misjudgment and a mistake, Israel and the IDF must prepare for any future conflict by freeing up its manpower from the endless policing missions and small-scale interventions that ultimately compromise its fighting ability. Mr. Olmert could do himself and his nation much good by confirming that he has an inner compass attuned to Israel’s real security demands, and that the boldness of the ideas he proffered just a few months ago still define him today.

Norman J. Kurz, formerly Sen. Joe Biden’s communications director and spokesman for Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now runs the Kurz Company, an international communications firm.

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