The Crisis Facing Israel Settling for a Draw with Hezbollah

The country's leadership promised a clear victory and a destruction of Hezbollah. But that didn't happen. Now, criticism of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government is getting louder. And Israelis are wondering what the future holds.

By Ilan Goren

A few days after the outbreak of hostilities -- when the Israeli military operation against Hezbollah, codenamed "Fitting Retribution," was still in the aerial strikes stage -- a new song was born. A group of young musicians were commissioned by a morning news show to write a funny, frivolous piece of pop -- a sort of anthem that would both unite people and make them laugh. A group called "Frishman and the Pioneers" came up with "Yalla Ya Nasrallah," a war song full of Hebrew and Arabic slang and slurs aimed at the leader of Hezbollah. The song's chorus goes like this:

"Yalla, ya Nasrallah,
we'll screw you, Inshallah
and send you back to Allah
with all your Hezbollah"

The piece was dripping with parody and cynicism -- yet recalled older Israeli ditties that meant every word they said about Israel's effortless defeat of the Arabs in previous wars. And July 2006 was no time for slightly veiled cynicism in Israel. The song was taken at face value and it turned out to be a huge hit -- especially on the Internet. It also became a popular mobile phone ring tone.

Such was the atmosphere in mid-July -- it was all about crushing Hezbollah and teaching it a lesson it wouldn't soon forget. The Israeli public was confidently assured by the country's leadership that a vigorous air campaign would rapidly eliminate the threat posed by Katyusha rockets fired from southern Lebanon at Israeli towns across the border.

The offensive would also, the government explained, bring home the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah on July 12 -- the move which triggered hostilities. The Israeli chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, threatened that Israel would "take Lebanon back 20 years" if the soldiers weren't returned.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz likewise got into the chest thumping by promising Hezbollah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah that he would "never forget the name Amir Peretz." Liberal journalists, lefty artists and non-political finance managers all underwent a quick about face. The message was that this time, we Israelis really and truly meant business. A bumper sticker issued by the country's second-largest bank and distributed by the country's most popular daily paper summed up the mood: "We Shall Win!" it boldly announced from the back bumper of thousands of cars. It was as if Israelis were on a high -- inebriated by the sweet smell of sure victory in a just cause.

More than a month of sobering up has passed since then. And it has been a month the likes of which Israel hasn't experienced since the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- and not entirely dissimilar. Once again, a feeling of all-encompassing failure is making itself felt. Painful memories have been brought to the fore.

It was as if someone pressed a fast forward button, speeding Israel from calamity to calamity: Promises and pledges from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government were rephrased, minimized, and changed; the precise aerial campaign turned into a prolonged and messy ground operation; Katyusha rockets, despite the Israeli offensive, continued to pour down on Israeli cities and towns. And Olmert said in an interview that the war in Lebanon justified his plan to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank -- a statement that earned him opprobrium from both the right and the left.

Hezbollah turned out to be well trained, highly motivated and dedicated to punishing Israelis, both civilians and military, with an astonishing firepower. The Israeli army, on the other hand, was exposed as being alarmingly unprepared for the fight in Lebanon -- both in terms of equipment and tactics. The force quickly became bogged down, due primarily to unclear orders issued by a hesitant civilian leadership and the not-always-unobstructed flow of information through the military chain of command.

And in no time, the home front became defined by complaining, bitterness, anger and disbelief. The left claimed that Lebanese civilians were paying too high a price; the right believed that the punishment meted out to Hezbollah and Lebanon should be even more severe. Both accused the government of using the army -- and the lives of soldiers -- to further its political aims.

The result has been a widespread feeling that the operation was a logistical and tactical blunder. In the press, the war was renamed from "Fitting Retribution" to "The Second Lebanon War." Army reservists could hardly believe the out-of-date combat equipment they were issued -- some of them even went so far as to procure their own flack jackets or even batteries. The fabled might of the Israeli army suddenly evaporated like a chimera.

It didn't take long for new bumper stickers to be issued. One from Tel Aviv read: "We'll settle for a draw." Another quickly followed: "It's the participation that counts." The sentence recalls an old saying common within the Israeli sports establishment to ease the pain of constant defeat. The overconfident bumper stickers from the beginning of the war began disappearing.

And then came the last weekend of the war. The United Nations Security Council had already agreed on the wording of the cease-fire resolution -- but still 33 Israeli soldiers sent into battle returned in body bags. Uncomfortable questions from bereaved families -- "What did they die for?" -- were asked. Just like in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War. And just like 33 years ago, a rudimentary protest movement was formed voicing intense critique against the government.

There are, of course, essential differences from the 1973 debacle. In July 2006, unlike October 1973, Israel was not faced with a threat to its existence. Hezbollah has inflicted great pain, but has never posed a threat to Israel's survival.

The second difference, though, is more crucial: In 1973, there were a number of young leaders waiting in the wings who could fill the vacuum left by the removal of the old guard. After Golda Meir came Yitzhak Rabin and Menahem Begin. Generals were removed, yet replaced with worthy officers.

Now, though, the current leadership is supposed to be the new guard -- the young generation set to govern Israel for years to come. Many -- the prime minister, the foreign minister, the finance minister -- are newcomers. And rather than being former generals, all rose to power in civilian life or within political parties. They were the ones who were supposed to prove that Israel doesn't need military men at the helm.

Even if the new leadership cannot be held responsible for the years of neglect that led to many of the deficiencies of the war in Lebanon, Olmert and his government have cashed in their support early. Only a quarter of Israelis are pleased with the performance of Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Thirty-four percent think they should lose their jobs. A startling number of Israelis believe the country lost the war with Hezbollah. And a striking 72 percent now oppose Olmert's disengagement plan -- meaning that his coalition has lost its raison d'etre.

Simply put, Israelis find themselves in limbo. The country fears a much bloodier conflict with Iran and hopes for some sort of agreement with Syria. It has no faith its leadership and little hope for the future. While the country is in turmoil, Hezbollah -- and Israel's other fundamentalist enemies -- has derived a massive increase in self-confidence from the Lebanon conflict.

Israeli radio stations, in the mean time, have returned to playing melancholic oldies. On the popular TV show "Our Song," a military band struck up the anti-war ditty "The Song of Peace." And many Israelis are wondering what will happen next -- whether the country is facing a profound change in direction. There will, no doubt, be some tactical conclusions drawn. But major calls for change, Israeli history shows, will likely be left to the bumper stickers.


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