Israeli Citizens Continue to Support Military Action

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So far, the Israeli populace is supporting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's course of action in the fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon. That may change, depending on the course of events over the next few days and weeks.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. In the early hours of this morning, Israeli warplanes bombed the southern Lebanese village of Qana, killing at least 50 people, including more than 30 children, according to the Lebanese government. The bombing derailed diplomatic efforts to end the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had arrived in Israel late yesterday and planned to visit Lebanon today, but Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told Rice not to visit. He said his government will not take part in any further negotiations until a ceasefire is in place. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called an emergency meeting of the Security Council for this morning. Rice said she would return to Washington tomorrow.

The conflict with Hezbollah has presented Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with his first real crisis since he took over the government after Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and went into a coma earlier this year. Most Israelis say Olmert is doing a good job, but some are beginning to question whether he has an exit strategy from Lebanon.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.


At least so far, Ehud Olmert has the support of the Israeli public. A poll, published in Israel's largest circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, this weekend found almost three-quarters of Israelis rated the prime minister's performance as fairly good or very good. More than 80 percent said the Israeli operation against Hezbollah was the correct step, and more than two-thirds of Israelis believe the army should employ more force in Lebanon.

Joseph Alpher, a former senior intelligence official and currently coeditor of an Israeli-Palestinian Web site, says Olmert is handling the crisis well.

Mr. JOSEPH ALPHER (Former Israeli Intelligence Official): What's particularly striking is Olmert's rather innovative leadership of the civilian rear. He has succeeded in persuading the Israeli public to bear the brunt of Hezbollah's aggression against us, and bear it patiently.

GRADSTEIN: And that patience has lasted longer than many in Israel thought would be needed. When Hezbollah crossed the border into Israel earlier this month, killing eight Israeli soldiers and capturing two, many Israelis believed Israel would be able to defeat Hezbollah within a few days. But 19 days later, 51 Israelis - both soldiers and civilians - have died in the fighting. More than 520 Lebanese, most of them civilians, have also been killed. Israeli military officials say they have also killed dozens of Hezbollah guerillas.

Joseph Alpher says Israeli public opinion could shift if the fighting continues for months. But he says neither Olmert nor the Israeli public want to remain in Lebanon long term.

Mr. ALPHER: The likelihood that we're going to get stuck in Lebanese morass again I would say is very low. And this reflects a general Israeli, very - reticence bordering on repulsion at the idea of occupying Arab lands again. And this repulsion is born of the 18 years in which we were stuck in Lebanon prior to 2000, as well as the ongoing difficulties of occupation in the West Bank and, prior to last August, in Gaza as well.

GRADSTEIN: Ehud Olmert is one of the few Israeli prime ministers without significant military experience. Most of his predecessors - Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin - were generals and military heroes. Olmert did most of his compulsory army service as a journalist for a military weekly.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who did fight in the 1973 war and was seriously wounded, comes to the job as a former trade union leader from the center-left Labor Party. Before the current crisis, there were tensions between the two men, although the crisis seems to have brought them together, as it has united much of the Israeli public.

But some in Israel - like Gershom Gorenberg, an author and historian - say that both that unity and the public support is fragile.

Mr. GERSHOM GORENBERG (Author and Historian): It's dependent on the military campaign providing clear gains of the sort that he's claiming, of leaving Hezbollah defanged or significantly weaker, of Israel making political strategic gains that will make this whole military operation worthwhile.

GRADSTEIN: Gorenberg says the fact that both Olmert and Peretz come from civilian rather than military backgrounds should have increased the diplomatic as well as military options. But he says Olmert may be overcompensating.

Mr. GORENBERG: There's also a serious chance that precisely because Olmert and Peretz were people known for their civilian background, that they felt that to legitimize themselves, they had to act very strong, and that inclined them to take the military suggestions without proper considerations of the long-term policy impact.

GRADSTEIN: There has also been criticism of Olmert's decision making process. Giora Eiland, the former head of Israel's national security council, says Olmert rushed into a large-scale military conflict too fast.

Mr. GIORA EILAND (Former Head of Israel's National Security Council): (Speaking foreign language)

GRADSTEIN: He doesn't always evaluate things and look at all the options, Eiland said. He looks at everything in black and white: either this or nothing. He should look at a wide array of options, even during a crisis, and look at the connection between actions and goals before launching a major military operation.

Israeli analysts say the air strike on Qana today, and the deaths of more Lebanese civilians, is likely to increase international pressure on Israel for a ceasefire.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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