Olmert Tries to Defuse Public Anger

The Associated Press
Monday, August 21, 2006; 5:39 PM

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried to defuse growing public anger Monday over his handling of the war against Hezbollah, promising to rebuild rocket-scarred border areas but rejecting peace talks with Syria, a key supporter of the Lebanese guerrillas.

With efforts to recruit troops for an international peacekeeping force facing resistance from Europe, the week-old truce appeared increasingly fragile. The Israeli army, which is waiting for the U.N. force to arrive before fully withdrawing from southern Lebanon, said its soldiers shot two Hezbollah guerrillas who approached in a "threatening manner" late Monday. A Hezbollah official called the report "untrue and entirely baseless."

Although Italy offered Monday to command the enhanced international force, many European countries are apparently hesitant to commit troops because of questions about whether they will be called on to disarm Hezbollah fighters, who have largely melted back into the civilian population. Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh have offered front-line troops but Israel does not want them because those Muslim nations have not recognized the Jewish state.

Since the U.N.-brokered cease-fire took effect, ending 34 days of war, the Israeli public's frustration with the performance of the government and the military has grown steadily. On Monday, hundreds of reservists signed a petition calling for an official inquiry, some marching outside Olmert's office to demand his resignation.

Olmert's government, a coalition headed by his centrist Kadima party and the moderate Labor party, is in no immediate danger of collapse. It could be brought down only by parliament, which is in recess until October, and it is not clear whether the public storm will last until then.

"I think Olmert will simply allow the anger to pass and get on with his business," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. He said none of the parties in the ruling coalition are eager to hold new elections, and there is no leader in Kadima with the clout to replace him.

The war, launched in response to a Hezbollah raid in which two soldiers were captured and three killed, initially enjoyed broad public support that withered as the fighting dragged on and the Israeli death toll grew. Critics said Israel's political and military leaders were indecisive, set unrealistic goals and settled for an insufficient truce.

The harshest criticism has come from reserve soldiers, who form an integral part of the military. Reservists returning from Lebanon complained about poor command and a lack of food, water and equipment.

"No goal was achieved. ... Nothing was done in this war," Roni Elmakyes, whose son Omri was killed in the fighting, told Israel Radio.

Even the army's leadership began to show signs of dissent. Brig. Gen. Yossi Hyman, the outgoing head of infantry, said this week that "we all feel a certain sense of failure."

Olmert has said he is ready for an investigation, but did not say what kind. An independent commission could call for the resignation of government and military officials.

During a tour of the north Monday, Olmert appeared cool toward such an inquiry, saying the second-guessing would undermine the army. "I won't play this game, the game of beating ourselves up," he said.

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