Donald Macintyre: A truce would have benefited both sides

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Kim Howells' retrospective admission that an earlier US/UK call for an immediate ceasefire "might have worked" will come as an all-too-belated statement of the obvious to many in Lebanon, where the huge - and mainly civilian - death toll would have been correspondingly lower if such a call had been made and heeded.

The irony is that such a call might have "worked" for the relatively new Israeli government as well. The travails of Ehud Olmert's administration would hardly have been any worse if ceasefire resolution UN 1701 had come earlier than it did.

The most senior Israeli military head to roll is that of Udi Adam, the head of the Northern Command, who was peremptorily sidelined by the far-from-universally popular chief of staff, Dan Halutz, well into the war and submitted his resignation yesterday. Amir Peretz, the Defence Minister, was urged to step down, also yesterday, by Ami Ayalon, one of his more formidable rivals.

Beyond this Mr Olmert will have to use all his undoubted political astuteness to secure his premiership in the months to come. If the new, beefed-up Unifil is seen to work - a big if - he will probably be home and dry. If it fails, the right-wing critics will be emboldened further to accuse him first of mishandling the war and then of having cut and run via an unworkable deal.

A clear call by the Bush administration and its steadfastly loyal British ally might have afforded more international space to try to"re-energise", to use Tony Blair's phrase, the Israel-Palestinian peace process weeks - and many deaths in Gaza - earlier. More tangibly, civilian and military lives of Israelis - the toll of which however modest compared to those in Lebanon - was growing steadily, would have been saved.

The complaints that Hizbollah's military power had not been eliminated would have been as vociferous; along with those about the failure to free the two Israeli soldiers whose abduction triggered the war. But that criticism was hardly stilled by prolonging the war. Mr Olmert was after all making extravagant claims for having dismantled Hizbollah's infrastructure mid-way through the war; he would certainly have repeated them if the war had ended earlier.

A clear Anglo-American call for an immediate ceasefire would, moreover, have provided Mr Olmert with the one realistic excuse he could have cited for halting a war which remained highly popular with the Israeli public, even though it was palpably failing to meet many of the objectives cited for it at the outset.