Donald Macintyre: The Israelis support this war. But will they end up disappointed by the result?

Olmert's emphasis on what had already been achieved suggests he thinks time is running out
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The Independent Online

You don't have to spend long in northern Israel to detect the public support for Ehud Olmert's decision to go to war. You can sense it in the poor and mainly Russian speaking Burla district of Acre, in which one street has lost not one but two soldiers since the conflict began three weeks ago; in the up-market Carmel neighbourhood overlooking Haifa Bay; in the little northernmost border village of Metullah, which would normally be packed with tourists at this time of year.

While this piece is being written to the sound of Israeli artillery fire and sporadic loudspeaker warnings from the police of another possible round of incoming mortar attacks, almost every conversation seems to bear out the opinion polls showing strong approval for the Israeli Prime Minister's stated objective of "crippling" Hizbollah.

It's true that the north, from which an estimated 250,000 people have left for the south and which has most to gain from the promised removal of the Katyusha threat, is solidest of all in in its backing. But outside a so-far relatively narrow stream of opinion on the dissident left, the majority sentiment prevails for now across the whole country, and shows little sign of being shaken by the wholesale slaughter of Lebanese civilians, including many children, in Qana on Sunday.

While Nahum Barnea, the country's most influential columnist, has sharply questioned the latitude given to attacks on Lebanese civilians, in a poll in yesterday's Maariv only 29 per cent even thought it was right to call a bombing pause in the wake of Qana, with 61 per cent thinking the warfare should be continued without any break.

This isn't because the average Israeli is simply impervious to the suffering on the other side of the border. Israelis can see the television pictures from Lebanon as clearly as anyone, and while the press coverage had hitherto tended to focus more heavily on incoming rocket fire, every paper on Monday led with the Qana story. But they largely accept the argument of their Government that it was Hizbollah rather than Israel which put the civilians in the line of fire.

At the UN in New York on Sunday evening the Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said he "would not be surprised" to find that the victims of the bombing had been forced to stay in their doomed apartment building by Hizbollah. On the face of it this remarkable statement makes the bombing even less defensible, since it means they had no chance of fleeing, but that contradiction has been little challenged here.

This support is no doubt welcome to Mr Olmert. It has given him the chance to create the image of a strong military leader that was precisely the missing element in his - and for that matter his Defence Minister Amir Peretz's - personal pitch to the Israeli electorate last March.

But it has also the potential to be a burden. For it is based on expectations created at the beginning of this conflict which have not yet been fulfilled. The military campaign started, of course, in response to the seizure of two soldiers on the border; but the aims were quickly reformulated to include that of freeing northern Israel from the threat posed by Hizbollah's batteries of rockets - a threat of which the last three weeks have provided Israelis, if nothing else, with what they see as a powerful demonstration.

Yet according to one example of military intelligence estimates quoted in the Israeli media yesterday, Hizbollah three weeks ago had around 13,000 Katyusha rockets; of these 1,500 have been fired, another 1,500 destroyed, leaving another 10,000 still in its arsenal. The public have been fortified by the belief that this time Israel is seeking the enforcement of a UN resolution prescribing the disarmament of Hizbollah. But in the event of an outcome which fails to put tangible curbs on Hizbollah's capacity to use its armoury, the support for Mr Olmert, while strong, is unlikely to be unconditional or indefinite.

All of which helps to explain why within hours of Condoleeza Rice announcing on Monday in the wake of Qana that she believes a ceasefire could be arranged "this week", first Mr Peretz and then Mr Olmert, made it clear - some might think defiantly clear - that they were not yet ready for a halt to the conflict. And why the two politicians now seem to want the army to move - in significantly larger numbers - into southern Lebanon in the hope of gaining control of a "sterile zone" of territory. This would mean Hizbollah could be pushed, and be seen to be pushed, back from the border, before a ceasefire.

And here the practical and political merge. The idea is to present the multinational force with a de-facto buffer zone to take over "facts on the ground", to use the phrase beloved by the Israeli politicial and security establishment; and also to give the Israeli government a measurable gain to show for the past three weeks.

If that were to succeed, and especially if it were to succeed in the next two or three days, it would no doubt pave the way for the early diplomatic deal including a ceasefire envisaged by Ms Rice. But if it fails - and no one even in the army is pretending that the task is easy given the army's experience of fighting Hizbollah on the ground in recent days, then, as ever, the US's role will be crucial.

Until this week, at least, the Bush administration showed every sign of reluctance to apply the brakes. So much so that in a Haaretz piece last week the respected left-leaning political scientist Zeev Sternhell cast considerable doubt on the ability of Israel to defeat a guerilla force like Hizbollah, advised Mr Olmert to seek a political solution before it was too late and then issued a savage warning about the US.

"Sometimes it seems as if US President George W Bush wants Israel both to destroy Lebanon and to sustain painful losses," wrote Professor Sternhell. "That way, Israel provides him with an excellent alibi for the war in Iraq: The fight against terror is global, the blood price is the same, the methods of operation and the means are identical, and the time needed for victory is long. The Israeli vassal is serving its master no less than the master is providing for its needs."

It is beginning to look as if after Qana that phase is now over; that Washington has come, however belatedly, to think that Israeli actions are serving as a recruiting sergeant for Hizbollah as much as damaging its capabilities. Mr Olmert's emphasis last night on what had already been achieved suggests that he thinks time is now running out. But, if so, Mr Olmert may find it difficult to satisfy an Israeli public now conditioned to wait and see how safe the north is from Katyushas between now and the next time he faces the electorate; and whether the deaths of over 50 Israeli civilians and soldiers, so far - let alone the 10 times as many deaths in Lebanon - were a price worth paying.