Support still strong for Olmert despite lethal rocket attacks

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The Independent Online

The deaths of eight Israeli civilians in Haifa, killed by an Iranian-built missile, is a reminder that the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is facing, less than four months after winning an election, what could be the greatest test of his premiership. So far, the country has rallied behind him.

This is an operation that started because two soldiers had been seized - and three others killed - in a cross-border raid. It has now widened to much more than that - the goal of disabling the threat on Israel's northern border posed by Hizbollah.

And while the barrages of rockets intensify the crisis, they also have a dramatic demonstration effect - that Hizbollah is indeed the threat it has long been depicted as. The widely-discussed military failures to prevent the cross-border raid, the one in Kerem Shalom, and Friday's night's missile attack on a ship, have provoked strong criticism of the Israeli military, but not of Mr Olmert. And, finally, as Israeli officials repeatedly point out, whatever criticism there may be of the methods being used, the objective of disarming Hizbollah has been endorsed by the UN.

For Mr Olmert, therefore, this crisis is an opportunity as well as a threat. As a man without the military experience of his most recent predecessors, he, and even more exceptionally in that respect, his Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, have something to prove. Neither Ehud Barak nor Ariel Sharon were above sorting out abductions without resorting to force on this scale. With hindsight, there were criticisms of both for setting about the comprehensive task of eliminating the Hizbollah threat as Mr Olmert is now seeking to do.

But this was politically easier for them because, steeped in the military, they were trusted on security. The more level-headed in the Israeli establishment recognise the military alone cannot eliminate Hizbollah, and hope that fresh war will galvanise the international community into - in the words of last night's G8 communique - helping the Lebanese government " assert its sovereign authority over all its territory".

They take encouragement from the G8 reference to a possible " international security/monitoring presence". But the danger comes, firstly, if the international community has no practical answers to help the Lebanese, and, secondly, if Israel incurs increasing criticism for killing civilians. In a long and costly war the voices of dissent could grow significantly louder.

* Israeli forces killed five Palestinian militants and a civilian in strikes on Gaza yesterday. Witnesses said the Palestinian Foreign Ministry was a target. The offices of a Hamas-led security forces was destroyed.