Israelis Rethink Strategy After Hezbollah Stalemate

The inconclusive monthlong war this summer between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon has led to a torrent of criticism inside Israel, both of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Some analysts believe the Israel Defense Force needs to reshape itself to face threats from unexpectedly sophisticated Arab armies and militias.

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The war this summer between Israel and Lebanon cost more than lives. Its repercussions are still being felt politically. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being criticized for mishandling that war along with the long revered Israel Defense Forces.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports form Jerusalem.

PETER KENYON: Caricatures of Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz sit on an old army truck above a sign calling on all three to resign. A mock graveyard of the 119 soldiers slain in this summer's war sits under a banner that tells Israel's leaders: You took command, take responsibility. A few reservists are still manning the protest site. Perez Hasul(ph) says, as in past battles, the soldiers showed up motivated and ready to fight, but this time they were betrayed by their leadership.

Mr. PEREZ HASUL: The whole support thing was wrong. Not enough equipment, not enough food, not enough - the orders were wrong. The commanders didn't know what they were doing; the politicians gave wrong orders. Everything together was wrong.

KENYON: Ever since the birth of the state of Israel in 1948, the Israel Defense Forces have enjoyed overwhelming support among Israeli's, support which has only occasionally wavered. Some commentators are comparing the current round of criticism to the one that followed the slaughter of hundreds of people in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. That led to the resignation of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.

Analyst Gerald Steinberg says this crisis may bring down the current defense minister, Amir Peretz, a rising star in the Labor Party who was given the defense post despite a lack of experience.

Professor GERALD STEINBERG (Bar Ilan University): There's a lot of criticism of Peretz as defense minister not only with no military capability but making grandiose speeches about capabilities about mission or war aims that just couldn't be met. I think the military sees that as a real problem. His position is particularly in jeopardy as a result of all of this.

KENYON: Beyond the political backlash, author and historian Michael Oren says the army faces a very real problem: how to once again re-fashion itself to meet the latest threats Israel is likely to face.

During the second Palestinian intifada from 2000 to 2005, Oren says the military moved away form its focus on full-blown combat in favor of confronting low intensity, urban guerilla fighting which worked in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin but was dramatically less successful against the better armed Hezbollah fighters.

Mr. MICHAEL OREN (Author and Historian): The Israeli army to a certain degree was caught unprepared. Now it's going to have to really develop a hybrid type of force; a force that's capable of also operating in the Kasbah of Hebron against Hamas at two o'clock in the morning, but also an army that's capable of taking the field against Hezbollah that is armed with sophisticated missiles and anti-tank rockets.

KENYON: That could be done in a relatively short time, Oren believes, if Israel is willing to retool the way it handles the huge reserve force that is the backbone of the military. Israel is no longer calling men out of their farm fields and orchards to fight, as it did in 1967 and 1973, but more often pulling them away from computer terminals in modern, globally connected companies that can ill afford their absence.

In the short term, perhaps the most serious fall out from the war may be the damage done to the image of the Israeli military among Middle East governments. Oren says this is a case where image is crucial.

Mr. OREN: The situation is very dangerous. The impression has been created that Israel is not the invincible military juggernaut that many people thought, and that may create a situation on the street in the Middle East where people will begin to put pressure on their leaders to take a more militant stance toward Israel now.

KENYON: Olmert has appointed a committee to investigate the conduct of the war and in the meantime is defending his decisions and those of his top commanders. But there's one thing analysts across the political spectrum agree on. In his weakened political state, the Israeli prime minister is in no position to make any serious moves toward peace. If anything, they say the political winds in Israel are blowing increasingly from the right.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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