Donald Macintyre: The uncertain end to this war may make Israel quicker to seek negotiated solutions

Israel, used to winning clear-cut victories in its many wars, will be traumatised by not doing so
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Four days ago, faced with conflicting advice whether to seek to expand the military operation in Lebanon or to seek a diplomatic solution to the month-old conflict there, Ehud Olmert decided to do both.

It no doubt says something about his resourcefulness as a politician that he came up with such an answer to his dilemma, one that no one had expected. But unless there is a better military explanation than anyone has managed to provide up to now for allowing the army another 48 hours at least to begin the larger scale operation it had demanded, the second part of his decision, taken, it seems, for largely political reasons, is much more defensible than the first.

You don't have to be blind to the far greater casualties in Lebanon to lament the deaths of 32 (mainly reservist) Israeli soldiers since the ceasefire resolution was signed in New York on Friday night. It is hard to think of a crueller irony than that author David Grossman's 20-year-old tank commander son Uri should have been killed, not only after his father joined his fellow novelists Amos Oz and A B Yehoshua in calling for a halt to the conflict, but after a ceasefire resolution which a dignified family statement said Uri Grossman had himself welcomed, promising his family he would home for a Shabbat dinner next Friday. The personal tragedy underlines the somehow especially terrible waste of lives on both sides of the border since Friday night.

For the larger decision, however, that of agreeing to a diplomatic solution, however fragile, there were much more incontestable arguments. The first was, as the clear-sighted columnist Uzi Benziman, hardly a kneejerk leftist, had put it the day before the UN vote, "a new military move would not change the outcome of the armed conflict".

It was not only that the military problems to which almost every soldier attested after returning from southern Lebanon, like the ferocious effectiveness of Hizbollah's armoury of anti-tank missiles not only against tanks themselves, but against the houses in which Israeli units embedded themselves is southern Lebanon, were not magically going to be dissipated by the full-scale invasion demanded on the political right - and rather more intermittently - by the army's chief of staff. It was also that even if there had been a means of defeating Hizbollah militarily it could only have been done at a cost of civilian lives in Lebanon that would have made even the appalling toll of the last month seem modest by comparison - a point actually reinforced by Israel's repeated charge that the guerillas were using the population as human shields.

And not just, perhaps, of Lebanese lives. For the Israeli death toll, if only a fraction of that of Lebanon, was rising steadily too. There is no doubt that the war was popular from the outset, and particularly so in the north of Israel where - wholly understandably - there was no more attractive prospect than that of shaking off, once and for all, the threat of Katyushas, which has dogged the region for more than a generation and confined those who could not afford to leave their homes to shelters for more than a month. Many in the north, it's already clear, feel angry and cheated at the outcome of their privations these past weeks.

But might a tipping point in public opinion have been eventually been reached? The reservists who found themselves increasingly bearing the brunt of the casualties, are men of experience - including in many cases of the last Lebanon war - with jobs, jobs and families. The overwhelming majority unhesitatingly answered the call to arms in a country which is hardened to the losses of war.

It was clear, too, from talking to a group of them yesterday on the border that for some at least relief at the prospect of a return home was mingled with a belief that they may be back to seek the victory which has so far eluded them and which they still see Israel as needing. Maybe, therefore, hundreds more casualties would have been absorbed by the Israeli public, even without the tangible gains it had been led to expect.

That was not, however, the view of the civil servant/tank commander just out of Lebanon, who while supportive of the war's aims - though much less so of its conduct in the field - told me bluntly, 24 hours before the UN resolution, that if the international community did not stop the war the level of casualties - eventually - would.

We can't be sure of that, any more than we can yet be sure what lessons will be learned by the still freshman Israeli government. Of course, Israel, used to winning clear cut victories in its many wars, will be traumatised by not doing so on this occasion. An optimistic view on the left is that this is actually good for Israel; that by demonstrating that the state can survive under such circumstances it finally seals Israel's future as a "state with an army" rather than in the old, ominous phrase, "an army with a state".

And that having secured a negotiated peace - if it lasts - Mr Olmert will even be emboldened - if he survives - to seek negotiated solutions elsewhere, with the Palestinians and even, though it can hardly be mentioned now, with Syria, as some analysts have suggested it has reason to regret having not done some six years ago.

This view has another dimension, too. All the evidence points to President Bush's willingness to see Israel fight a proxy war on its behalf, as long, at least, as it was seen to succeed. Andthat was the reason for the licence afforded Israel by the President - and Tony Blair - for so long. That it has not done so, may make the US realise , in the words of the unequivocally leftist Israeli writer Gideon Levy that "there is no point in pushing Israel into military adventures" - adventures that might have ranged wider and more dangerously still had there been a stunning victory.

All this may be too optimistic. The post-mortem over whether this bloody war was worth the cost has now started, sometimes in unexpected ways. From the left - though not the far left - the Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar, while sharply critical of Mr Olmert, even argued that the international stake now taken in Lebanon's future meant that Israel's situation was "incomparably better" than on 12 July.

The more centrist security analyst Yossi Alpher, by contrast, gave the diplomatic outcome a grudging "five out of 10", said there was a fifty-fifty chance of the war starting again, and that it had been "mismanaged" from the start. That debate will last for months, maybe even years. What the anger of the right should not disguise is that of all the many mistakes Mr Olmert has made, seeking to end the war he started was not one of them.