• Lebanon
  • August 14, 2006
  • 6 minutes read

Israelis turn on Olmert as UN agrees ceasefire

After basking in high approval ratings while the war was being pursued, the Prime Minister faces demands to stand down after failing to deliver total victory. Inigo Gilmore reports from Tel Aviv

The future of Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was last night hanging on how successfully he could sell his citizens the idea that the country had been ’victorious’ in the ’war in the north’ as criticism of his shaky performance began to escalate amid the first calls for his resignation.

While Olmert’s allies and government officials lined up to express satisfaction about the outcome of the UN ceasefire resolution passed while the fighting continued, attempts to present a ’victory’ to the Israeli public could not disguise the deep sense of disquiet over the operation’s failures and fears that Hizbollah might manage to emerge ’victorious’ in the coming days.

For most of the past month as he has prosecuted his war, the Israeli leader has enjoyed high approval ratings and almost unaminous political support across the political spectrum. On Friday he received a call in his office from Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, who has been generally supportive of the government’s actions aganst Hizbollah, saying he would support the campaign as long as the government did not show signs of weakness and finished the job. He told Olmert that as long as fighting continued the right-wing opposition was fully behind him.

But some on the right have begun to portray the UN resolution and Israel’s expected approval of it today as a capitulation by Olmert’s government. They included Limor Livnat, a former Education Minister and current Likud member of parliament, and on Friday former Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, also of the Likud party, became the first parliamentarian to openly call on Olmert to resign. His demand came on the back of a groundswell of outspoken and often scathing criticism of the government’s performance from leading Israeli commentators published in this weekend’s newspapers.

In a front-page story headlined ’Olmert must go’, Ari Shavit, a respected commentator in the Israeli daily Haaretz, tore into the Prime Minister, saying he had left Israeli appearing weak and vulnerable in the face of an increasingly confident Hizbollah. In more than 300 responses on the newspaper’s website, the comments, many from Israeli Jews, were mostly supportive of his critique.

Shavit scoffed at a new ground offensive – launched even as the UN ceasefire resolution was signed – as a publicity gimmick and raised the question of whether the government has a future.

’I think once a truce is installed you will have political turmoil in Israel and you will have a very serious process of soul searching which will also have political _expression,’ he said.

’If Prime Minister Olmert is to survive, he will have to make a major reshuffle. Things will not go back to where they were before.

’This has been a terrible shock. This has been a very dramatic event in Israel’s history and it is still too early to tell what the full political implications will be. I find it improbable to believe that the government as it is will remain in power for many years. If there is no significant achievement for Israel at the very last moment, Olmert will find it very difficult to tell people we went to war for certain aims and failed to achieve them. He desperately needs some last-minute achievement and that’s why we see the Israeli troops moving north.’

According to a poll in Haaretz on Friday, only about 20 per cent of Israelis thought they were winning the war, while 43 per cent believed the conflict would end in stalemate. Only 48 per cent of those polled supported Olmert’s handling of the conflict with Hizbollah – down from 75 per cent at the beginning of hostilities only four weeks ago. A poll in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth showed a smaller margin of slippage, with support for the Prime Minister falling from 73 to 66 per cent.

Israeli commentators have noted that people expected that the war would soon be over and the army would deal a crushing blow to Hizbollah, but the perception has been that the conflict has already lasted a month with no sign of this happening.

In a sign of the unrest, the commander of Israel’s Northern Command, responsible for ground operations in Lebanon, was replaced last week, and there has been mounting criticism of the massive bombing by Israel’s air force, which has so far been unable to deliver a crushing blow to Hizbollah’s ability to launch rockets into Israel. Olmert has also faced pressure from the Israeli military to continue the campaign as Israeli newspapers and television have reported that commanders in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have expressed grave misgivings over the proposed UN ceasefire.

All last week the Prime Minister faced squabbles in his cabinet over what direction to take. In a sign of unrest at the highest level, Olmert barred Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni from attending the United Nations Security Council sessions and, according to reports, brought his animosity towards Livni out into the open, sending Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres for diplomatic talks overseas, leaving Israel as the only major player without a Foreign Minister in New York.

Livni is said to have objected to continuing with the military operation and voiced opposition during early stages of the campaign, apparently protesting over some of the bombing in Beirut.

At the cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Livni made it clear to the IDF chiefs, who proposed an operation that would take a month or two, that if a political way out was found in a few days they would have to stop in their tracks.

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