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Facing Down a Wounded Nation

Between the inconclusive outcome of Israel’s war against Hezbollah and the widespread perception in Israel that the war was badly managed, it is far from clear that the Olmert government will survive.

Most Israelis are in agreement that at no previous time in the country’s history have the two top positions in the government, prime minister and defense minister, been held by two people with so little experience in defense, security and foreign policy. The argument has long been, perhaps paradoxically, that in order to have effective civilian control of the military — the most powerful and prestigious institution in Israel — one of the two top positions needs to be occupied by someone who can both give the military clear strategic goals and control and understand what the army is suggesting.

This, as has now become painfully obvious, has not been the case with either Ehud Olmert or Amir Peretz. As a veteran politician and parliamentarian who served for years as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was no a stranger to policy matters. However, they were mainly confined to fundraising or up-lifting speeches in front of supportive Jewish or neoconservative audiences.

Olmert had yet to be in a position where he had to make difficult policy decisions involving life and death issues or had to balance military considerations against foreign policy pressures. So when Hezbollah initiated its cross-border raid on July 12, killing a number of Israeli soldiers and abducting two, Olmert was totally unprepared to handle the tough choices he had to make under enormous public pressure. Nor, for that matter, was he able to question the opinions being offered to him by the military, and especially by Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, the military’s chief of staff and former commander of the air force.

But at least Olmert had some knowledge of foreign policy and had good contacts with many of Israel’s friends in the United States. Peretz, on the other hand, was totally out of his depth as defense minister. A rabble-rousing trade union activist who was shielded from effective public scrutiny because of his Moroccan background — any criticism of his lack of experience was immediately countered with charges of racism — he never had any experience of or interest in military and security affairs. What’s more, he barely speaks English and has hardly traveled abroad; to claim that he never read a foreign newspaper or met a foreign statesman before assuming office is not an exaggeration.

Their inexperience, together with the know-it-all arrogance of Halutz that is typical of Israeli air force generals, proved a toxic combination. During the war with Hezbollah, the result was a leadership characterized by verbal arrogance on the one hand and operational hesitation on the other. Under the stewardship of Olmert, Peretz and Halutz, thousands of rockets fell on Israel’s north, and even Haifa became a ghost town. A million people spent a month in shelters or became refugees in their own country. And many officers and soldiers, especially in the reserve forces that were called up late in the campaign, have been saying that the military leadership was inept, equipment insufficient, and planning and orders confused. Nothing like this has ever happened in the country’s history. Will this inept leadership survive? It is difficult to know.

Currently they are trying to fend off the popular call for a commission of enquiry into the conduct of the war. Both Olmert and Peretz know that previous such commissions ended with the leaders eventually being forced to resign. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 cost Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and General David Eleazar their jobs; the first Lebanon war in 1982 cost Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon theirs.

Will Olmert and Peretz go the same way? It looks like public pressure will eventually force the government to appoint such a commission. If one is established, it will almost certainly further undermine the ability of the government to function.

Calls are also beginning to be heard for new elections. This, too, may come to pass. The common program of Kadima and Labor — namely, further disengagement from the West Bank — certainly suffered a major setback in Lebanon.

One of the main arguments against having a new election less than a year after the last one is that there may not be acceptable alternatives to the current government. If Olmert and Peretz were forced out of office, this logic goes, it could very well pave the way for a comeback by Benjamin Netanyahu.

A general electoral shift to the right is to be expected, yet both Kadima and Labor may be able to come up with appealing alternatives. A consensus-building candidate in Kadima could be Dan Meridor, who has been sidetracked by both Sharon and Olmert. Meridor was Cabinet secretary under Begin, is much respected across the board, and has recently completed a detailed survey of Israel’s security needs on behalf of the Knesset. Uzi Dayan, for his part, could become a standard bearer for Labor. Dayan, bearer of one of Israel’s most illustrious surnames, is a highly decorated officer and former national security adviser to Sharon. He is also known for his civil courage and his commitment to social policies, something that would sit well with Labor supporters.

Both Meridor and Dayan stand in stark contrast to the ineptness of Olmert and Peretz. But both have yet to be tested by the brutal infighting that is a hallmark of Israeli politics.

The real losers from the war with Hezbollah are the Palestinians. Before the war one could perhaps have imagined a slow, albeit tortuous, road toward further disengagement and perhaps even face-to-face negotiations. But a wounded Israeli government, if it even survives, is unlikely to be more generous now to a Hamas-led Palestinians leadership than it was before the war.

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, may continue with his soothing language, but he is a survivor, not a fighter. He has shown himself unable to rein in the militants in his own Fatah organization, let alone to confront Hamas, and as such is an unlikely candidate for serious negotiations.

Syria, on the other hand, looms, as always, on the horizon. Some Israelis, including Cabinet ministers, have been suggesting that perhaps now is the time to talk with Damascus.

On one level, this may make sense: In order to avoid another round with Hezbollah, why not talk to the regime on which Hezbollah ultimately depends? But besides the tough price — all of the Golan Heights, with Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee — Israel would find itself on a collision course with current American policies, which are based on isolating Syria. This may of course change, but even then, one cannot imagine Washington being ready for an opening with Syria without addressing Damascus’s basic position that Lebanon is still its diplomatic and military ward.

The Bush administration, faced with the debacle in Iraq and with an increasingly militant Iran, may come up with a new Middle East policy initiative in the run-up to the November elections. Despite the different agendas in Washington and Jerusalem, any shift in American policy will obviously have repercussions for Israel. In the meantime, though, everything remains on hold — and the fate of the government in Jerusalem hangs in the balance.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

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