Israelis Unhappy with Unresolved Hezbollah Conflict

Prime Minster Ehud Olmert seems to have beaten back calls for his resignation over handling of war. But many Israelis are still profoundly unhappy with what's widely viewed as a draw or worse with Hezbollah.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this weekend said he would meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to advance peace efforts. Abbas says he is ready to meet with Olmert without prior conditions. Olmert insists that before any progress can be made in peace talks, an Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip must be released. But that soldier's destiny is controlled by militants with links to the ruling Hamas party.

Meanwhile, Olmert faces persistent protests over his government's handling of the war this summer with Hezbollah. And yesterday, thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel-Aviv to demand an independent investigation of that war.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports now from Jerusalem on divisions in Israel and fears about the future.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Israeli reservists back from the war are still camped out across the street from the prime minister's office. And they're still demanding the same thing and vowing to stay, says this reservist, until they get it.

Mr. YUGAL GAMIARI(ph) (Israeli Reservist): The three people that are responsible for the failure of the war and didn't keep their promises, they have to go.

SULLIVAN: The reservist, 53-year-old Yugal Gamiari, may have a long wait. Just a week ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, his defense minister and the army chief of staff all appeared in danger of losing their jobs, with public perception high that they'd bungled the war. But the public outcry appears to be subsiding, and they are signs that Olmert, a wily political veteran, may be able to hang on.

Professor EFRAIM INBAR (Bar-Ilan University): I don't think that we should underestimate his political skills. And he may well survive. In a very cynical way, I would say that probably aren't enough dead in order to make him resign immediately.

SULLIVAN: Bar-Ilan University political science professor Efraim Inbar is no fan of Prime Minister Olmert or his handling of the war, but he says the result was not as bad as many here paint it.

Prof. INBAR: I think that we should also remember that Hezbollah took a serious beating. So it is not an entirely bleak picture, but unfortunately Israelis feel correctly that they were not victorious.

SULLIVAN: Decisive victories in past wars, in '48, '67 and '73, have led to unrealistic expectations, says Hebrew University political science professor Yeron Mizrahi(ph). Unrealistic particularly when fighting an asymmetrical war.

Professor YERON MIZRAHI (Hebrew University): The notion that Israel will take care of the guerilla and show the world and help the Arab - motivate states' leadership to see that organizations like Hezbollah and maybe Hamas can be defeated was a false idea from the very beginning. And the sense of failure is only relative to the expectations and not to the professional analysis of what could have been achieved. It's true that the Israeli army could have achieved better results, but not spectacularly better results.

SULLIVAN: Mizrahi says it's too early to say who won or lost. A lot, he says, will depend on whether the international presence in southern Lebanon limits Hezbollah's influence there.

But others see the war through a far darker prism. Thousands of Hezbollah rockets raining down on northern Israel, hundreds of thousands of people displaced for nearly a month. All this, says Shalem Center Senior Fellow Yossi Klein Halevi, points to an existential threat to the Israeli nation.

Mr. YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI (Senior Fellow, Shalem Center): Two months ago, before this war, any Israeli would have seen that scenario as apocalyptic. For Haifa to be hit with impunity until the last day of the war, we couldn't stop or we wouldn't stop the Hezbollah rockets from making the entire north basically unlivable. And what we did to ourselves was leave open the question of whether the north of Israel, the Galilee, and for that matter the south around Gaza, is really viable in the long term.

SULLIVAN: Halevi says he was a passionate supporter of Prime Minister Olmert and his goal of a partial and unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in the near future. But the recent war has led Olmert to shelve those plans for now, a decision that Halevi supports, given the conflict with Hezbollah in the north and intermittent, though persistent, homemade rocket attacks from Gaza that have followed Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year.

Mr. HALEVI: Now we need to totally rethink our relationship to the West Bank, to the strategic arguments that the Israeli right has been making for years and which most Israelis really did not want to listen to, myself included. Now we really need to rethink the entire question of our geographic relationship with our neighbors and of the most basic ways in which we're going to defend ourselves here.

SULLIVAN: Halevi says the lesson many Israelis have drawn from the war is to prepare for the next one. Hebrew University's Yeron Mizrahi says that's the wrong lesson to be learned from the war with Hezbollah.

Mr. MIZRAHI: I think the expectations from the Israeli army to solve the problem of Israel's security were exaggerated for a long time. And these expectations have been an obstacle for the politics of peace. So in some profound sense I think that a sense of the limits of power by Israelis may be ironically and paradoxically a positive contribution to the next stage and even encourage Israeli leadership to follow more vigorously and energetically all opportunities for negotiations.

SULLIVAN: In the long run, maybe. But Prime Minister Olmert must still concentrate on his short-term survival. After a war many Israelis still see as a draw at best, few are in the mood for negotiation.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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