In Hezbollah Chief’s Regrets, Israelis Suddenly See Victory

reporter’s notebook

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 01, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.

HAIFA — “I’m going to tell you something that might surprise you,” novelist A.B. Yehoshua said over coffee in his hometown this past Monday. “I think this was a successful war.”

This was indeed surprising. Three weeks earlier, Yehoshua, one of Israel’s most iconoclastic liberals, had joined with fellow novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman in a public call for Israel to cease fire and open negotiations before disaster hit. Instead, the army launched a last-minute offensive that cost the lives of 33 Israeli soldiers, including Grossman’s son.

The writers’ protest quickly became a symbol of everything that seemed wrong with this war: erratic tactics, sloppy logistics and, worst of all, failure to achieve its goals. The soldiers whose kidnapping touched off the war were still in captivity. Hezbollah was rattling sabers and claiming victory. Israeli military deterrence had been weakened, not strengthened. Jerusalem was reduced to asking the United Nations to guard its northern border.

Since then, anger has steadily gathered steam: protests by demobilized soldiers; a deluge of embarrassing press disclosures; calls for a judicial inquiry; demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the army’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz. In three weeks traveling the length and breadth of Israel, in dozens of conversations with Israelis high and low, I heard hardly a single voice of approval or optimism.

Until Monday. That day, suddenly, voices all over Israel were expressing satisfaction with the war and optimism over its results. One could travel the length of Israel — breakfast in Haifa with the novelist; lunch in Beersheba with a marketing consultant; dinner in Rehovot with a graduate student and reserve lieutenant, and phone chats in between with a rabbi, a conservative journalist and a Cabinet minister — and hear nothing but celebration. It was as though Israel’s fever had broken overnight.

The cause of the mood shift wasn’t hard to pinpoint. On Sunday evening, the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, told a Lebanese television interviewer that he regretted launching the July 12 attack that started the war. “If I had known that the operation to capture the soldiers would lead to this result, we would not have carried it out,” the sheikh confessed. Taking Nasrallah at his word, Israelis concluded that they actually had regained their deterrence, the most critical item in their survival kit. Suddenly their leaders didn’t look so dumb.

Nor was that all. On Monday, Israel’s popular Army Radio reported that Hezbollah had dismantled 14 military outposts along the Israeli border near the disputed Shebaa Farms. The Lebanese army had begun deploying along the Lebanon-Syria border, apparently to block Hezbollah arms shipments. France, which had promised 2,000 troops to a “robust” peacekeeping force and then inexplicably scaled back to 200, was again promising 2,000 soldiers, with orders to shoot.

Not least, the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot carried a lengthy report Sunday by one of its most respected reporters, Ron Ben-Yishai, who had slipped into Beirut to assess the mood — and the damage. Landing in Beirut International Airport, he reported, “The Jordanian Airbus stopped with a squeal of brakes, throwing the passengers forward,” because of runway damage caused by Israeli shelling. Leaving the plane, however, he found a “gleaming, shiny terminal. Not a crack could be seen on the huge glass walls.” The story was the same in downtown Beirut: a city teeming with life, fashionably dressed people sipping coffee and chatting on cell phones. Only in southern Beirut, in the strongholds of Hezbollah, was there noticeable damage — to specific buildings.

Israel’s bombardments, Ben-Yishai made clear, had been astonishingly surgical in their accuracy. Beirut, for all the international outcry, was not destroyed. “That’s made a big impression,” said Huguette Elhadad, a Beersheba-based businesswoman. In Israel, she made clear, everybody reads Yediot.

The shift isn’t easy to quantify. The most recent polls, showing two-thirds of Israelis wishing that Olmert would quit, were conducted before the weekend that things changed. But there are other signs. Every major newspaper has carried an analysis of the protests’ failure to become a groundswell. One of the most outspoken reservists’ groups, having failed to bring out the masses, decided this week to dramatize its cause by mounting a protest march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — with just five participants.

And then there’s Olmert. Whatever his military skills, he’s one of Israel’s canniest readers of the political mood. This week he decided to dismiss calls for a judicial commission of inquiry, and instead appointed three investigating committees without subpoena powers.

“War is always something unbearable” said Yona Yahav, mayor of Haifa, which suffered heavily from Hezbollah rocket fire during the 34-day war. “The price is always very heavy. But you have to see it in the overview.”

“This war was a great achievement,” Yahav said. “You can’t see it yet, but there are internal processes within Lebanon that will offset Hezbollah within the Lebanese political system.” In the long run, he predicted, this war would lead to a breakthrough to peace. Just as the bloody 1973 Yom Kippur War led to peace with Egypt, “this war will lead to peace between Lebanon, Syria and us.”

Not everyone is as optimistic as Yahav about the prospect of regional peace. Even the skeptics, however, are impressed with the war’s diplomatic achievements. “We needed to send a message to Lebanon that the existing situation couldn’t continue, and we did that,” said Yehoshua, the novelist. “Now the Lebanese government has begun to take responsibility for its own territory.”

No, Yehoshua admits, Hezbollah was not disarmed, much less dismantled. “But that wasn’t our job,” he said. “It wasn’t our job to remove every rocket from every kitchen and living room in south Lebanon. That’s the job of the Lebanese government. Our job was to tell them: ‘You have to do your job. We won’t tolerate this.’ And we succeeded.”

On the broader international front, too, Israelis see significant gains. “Israel is used to being the enfant terrible of the world, but now it’s much more coordinated with the international community,” said Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, a leader of the fractious Labor Party. The party is the source of some of the most outspoken protests.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Israelis have suddenly opened their hearts to the U.N., which is now supposed to keep terrorists away from Israel’s northern border. “It’s something that we’re looking at with very focused eyes, to see if they will disappoint us,” Herzog said. “But so far they have not disappointed.”

“Overall,” Herzog said, “the international community was much more supportive. People recognize the Iranian threat.”

“Thank God it happened now,” Herzog said, “and not three years from now, when there would be Iranian nuclear capability and possibly weapons of mass destruction. This is really important.”

But shouldn’t Israel have waited just a few days before opening fire, as domestic critics say, to make certain that its planning was complete, that its army and reserves were battle ready?

“The failures were structural,” Yehoshua replied. “The tank armor was insufficient. The army’s best equipment was in the West Bank, and the north had the leftovers. These mistakes took years to build, and they won’t be fixed overnight. What could we have learned by waiting a few days? That war is hard? We knew that.”



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