By Molly Moore and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 6, 2006
JERUSALEM -- With much of Israel's northern population huddling in underground shelters and Hezbollah proving more resilient than Israeli leaders had publicly predicted, Israel's news media, intellectual elite and public are starting to question the judgment of the country's political and military leadership.
After an extraordinary national surge of unanimity during the first days of the conflict, public support is starting to fray, with some of the nation's most influential voices criticizing political leaders and Israel Defense Forces generals for military strategies they say have failed to protect Israeli citizens.
They blame Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz for trying to lull citizens into a false sense of security, fault generals for relying too heavily on air power to destroy Hezbollah rocket launchers, and worry that Israeli troops may not have been prepared to defeat a force far tougher than Palestinian fighters.
"The public should demand of the political echelon: Stop or reduce the Katyusha rocket fire," the popular daily newspaper Ma'ariv wrote Friday. "Do what you should have done two weeks ago. . . . Bang on the table in front of the white-faced IDF officers, and demand more proposals; think and think again. . . . The time for patience has passed. You have an army, use it, or go for a cease-fire."
The behind-the-scenes disagreements between the generals and the politicians, and among competing branches of the military, are becoming part of the public debate.
This weekend, Olmert's top security advisers are scheduled to debate whether Israeli forces should be sent deeper into Lebanon, beyond the approximately two-mile strip they are now battling to clear of Hezbollah fighters. Olmert reportedly has been reluctant to expand the military operations, while military officers are said to be chafing under his restrictions. According to military officials, field commanders are pressing Olmert, Peretz and other key ministers to approve an expansion of their offensive to include all land up to the Litani River, which roughly parallels the Israel-Lebanon border and ranges 15 miles north of it in some places. The goal would be to push Hezbollah fighters who are firing rockets farther away from Israel.
"Wherever we are present, you do not see rockets fired," Brig. Gen. Guy Tzur, commander of the Steel Division, which includes armor and infantry units operating on the eastern half of Israel's border with Lebanon, said in an interview Friday at his headquarters in the northern town of Philon. "But we're getting to the edge of where the government permits us. We're not present everywhere we have to be present in order to stop more of the attacks. If we can go farther, the Israeli citizens will feel a difference."
Much of the Israeli news media and many analysts are skeptical, however .
"The strikes on the home front are becoming worse as the IDF sends more and more brigades into Lebanon," wrote Amos Harel in the daily newspaper Haaretz. "Launchings from areas in which the army is operating have been reduced by half, but Hezbollah combatants simply relocate to the next range of hills and fire from there."
But Brig. Gen. Tzur said intelligence shows that the vast majority of Hezbollah rockets have a range of 12 to 15 miles. If Israel can stop rocket launches south of the Litani River, the radical Shiite Muslim militia would be forced to use longer-range munitions, which take longer to launch, are easier to detect and destroy, and have been depleted already by Israeli bombardment.
Israel's top security officials already authorized one large expansion of the ground campaign in a four-hour meeting last week.
"I hope the new decision is to let us get to the Litani. Then we will need two weeks to finish things," Tzur said. "Believe me, after that the situation will be different. If we have the permission, we will achieve the goals. It's very easy, we know how to do it."
Many Israelis say they no longer trust that kind of bravado.
"Their thinking of the war is anachronistic," said Yaron Ezrahi, one of Israel's most prominent political analysts. "They set certain kinds of goals which are unachievable like crushing and stopping missiles."
Ezrahi said he thinks the hail of Hezbollah rockets into Israel has demonstrated to the rest of the world the dangers Israel faces in the region -- particularly the risks of letting Iran, one of Hezbollah's benefactors, proceed with its nuclear programs.
Rather than push deeper into Lebanon, where Israel ended an unpopular occupation of a self-declared security zone six years ago, Ezrahi said, "we can have a lot to gain by stopping now and moving to convert what we have done to political assets."
Public sentiment, which had overwhelmingly supported the war two weeks ago, is also beginning to waver. Even leftist groups supportive of peace moves with the Palestinians backed the anti-Hezbollah offensive in its first days, but several dovish groups have now called their first peace rally in Tel Aviv this weekend to demand a stop to the war.
"I fought the same battles against the same enemy in the same places 16 years ago," said Ido Ahronson, 36, a Jerusalem computer technician who served in Israel's previous conflict in Lebanon. "We didn't accomplish anything then, and I don't see how we can accomplish that much now. How would you feel if George Bush decided to send you back into Vietnam? We are fighting an enemy that uses civilians as protection, knows the terrain well and is brainwashed to believe they are fighting for Islam."
The Israeli public and news media are also growing disenchanted with what some analysts see as efforts by Olmert and Peretz -- both facing their first major crisis on the job -- to use overly optimistic rhetoric.
In a speech Tuesday, Olmert said of Hezbollah's capability to fire rockets at Israel: "Twenty-one days later, that threat is not what it was." The next day, Hezbollah pummeled Israel with 230 rockets -- the most of any day of the conflict.
In a public opinion survey published Friday by Ma'ariv, 55 percent of respondents said they thought Israel was winning the war, and only 3.5 percent said Hezbollah was winning. But nearly 38 percent said "no one" was winning.
"Look at what is going on in Haifa," said Shaul Malka, 28, a Jerusalem taxi driver. "Haifa is a huge busy city, and now it is a ghost town. People are scared to leave the bomb shelters and walk on the streets. So how can they say we are winning?"
Finer reported from Philon. Special correspondent Ian Deitch contributed to this report.