Peres gains no blessings from assault

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The Independent Online
The United States agreed yesterday to help Israel develop a new laser defence against Katyusha rocket strikes and to provide it with instant satellite warning of attacks.

Arriving in Washington yesterday to see President Bill Clinton, the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, said Hizbollah attacks were "really an attempt to stop the peace progress" and would not succeed. But Israel's attacks on Lebanon have clearly not solved the problem and they may not help Mr Peres much either.

Mr Peres and the Defense Secretary, William Perry, said plans to jointly develop the US. "Nautilus" laser system, which sends a beam of light to burn up rockets in flight, would help Israel defend itself against Katyusha rockets such as those fired by Hizbollah guerrillas into Israel this month. "Warning will be given in a matter of seconds to any ballistic missile launch that in any way would threaten Israel," Mr Perry said.

An agreement last Friday between Israel, Lebanon and Hizbollah was supposed to end the problem.But as the terms of the new understanding were revealed by Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, on Friday, Mr Peres looked less like a victor and more like a man who was relieved it was all over. Operation Grapes of Wrath had not gone as planned. It did not stop the Katyusha rockets landing in Israel and it led to the Qana massacre. If it had gone on any longer the army might have suffered casualties, which would have hurt Mr Peres in the election on 29 May.

Israelis are generally aware they got little out of Grapes of Wrath. The ceasefire differs from most ceasefires in that it institutionalises a small war - the conflict between Hizbollah guerillas and Israel in the Israeli- occupation zone. "There is no doubt military activity in the security zone, along the rules that were established, will continue," said Uri Lubrani, Israel's policy-maker in Lebanon, yesterday. "This is not a peace accord, this is not a ceasefire, this is an agreement that applies rules that bind all sides."

The government says that it made important gains. It says the Israeli army will have greater freedom to respond to Hizbollah fire from villages. The understanding will also be monitored by a committee of five countries, The US, France, Lebanon, Israel and Syria. But Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, believes the introduction of international supervisors "will not aid, but hinder us and deprive us of freedom of action".

The attacks on Lebanon were popular in Israel. A problem for Mr Peres and his government is that there is little sign the war in Lebanon did him much good. The last two polls, the latest published on Friday, by the Dahaf Institute for the daily Yediot Aharanot show Mr Peres 5 per cent ahead of Mr Netanyahu, with 49 per cent of the vote against 44 per cent. This is worrying for Labour because experience shows that the 7 per cent who are "undecided" vote usually for the right.

Worse from Labour's point of view, is the strong reaction against the bombardment of Lebanon from Israeli-Arabs, who ought to provide bedrock support for Mr Peres. If they fail to turn out for Labour, he is likely to lose the electon.

Mr Peres said the action was "a tremendous achievement for the Israeli army." He was immediately contradicted by General Ariel Sharon, leader of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, who denounced the the results of the 16-day bombardment of Lebanon as pitiful. He said: "Peres was simply in a great hurry to get some piece of paper that would get him out of Lebanon."