September 12, 2006
After the War, Israel Takes Stock
BY Hadas Ragolsky
Reservists recently returned from the war in Lebanon set up an anti-government protest camp in Jerusalem.
An eerie silence fell on south Lebanon and the north of Israel when the first days of the cease-fire came into force. After more than 30 days, people in the northern Israeli towns of Keryat Shmona, Safed and Nahariya walked the streets freely. Shops began to reopen. Israeli and Lebanese refugees filled the roads on their way back to what was left of their homes. Many Lebanese didn't have a home to go back to.
Over the next four days, both countries buried their dead. Then the first Israeli reservists were released from service. Most of them went straight home. But some, like Ronny Zvigenbaum, 27, and Asaf Davidov, 28, marched to the prime minister's office, along with other troops from their regiment. They held up signs reading "Citizens of Israel, our brothers, we must get out of the bubble" and "Olmert, Peretz, Halutz -- take responsibility."
Most reservsists went straight home. But some marched to the prime minister's office, along with other troops from their regiment. They held up signs reading, "Olmert, Peretz, Halutz -- take responsibility."
These young reservists were calling on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to resign. In their view, the government had failed to achieve the goals it had declared during the first days of fighting - the return of the abducted soldiers, the disarmament of Hezbollah and its removal from Israel's borders, and the installation of an international force to take control of the conflict between the rival states.
"I don't want to be famous or to be a politician. I just want those who are responsible for these failures to go home," said Zvigenbaum to the many reporters who had gathered to cover the march.
The reservists set up tents in front of Olmert's office and called on others to join their protest. Three weeks later, some of them are still there.
A cardboard memorial marked with the names of those who died in the war with Hezbollah is erected within view of the prime minister's office.
Parents who lost their children in the war also came out to protest. They marched to the grave of Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister who resigned in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War. Moshe Muskal, who lost his son during the first few days of fighting in Lebanon, spoke for the bereaved families. "Olmert is being asked to go home without any commissions of inquiry or PR spin," said Muskal. "This demand is gaining wide support; it appears the entire nation is with us."
Muskal's group and the reservists released this formal statement expressing their concerns:
"The pain you caused us in your failure succeeded to unite us. In the name of our friends who didn't come back from the battle, in the name of the abducted soldiers and their families, and in the name of our dearest sons who will never return we declare: We will not rest, we will not stop our protest till those who are responsible will take responsibility for their actions. We say to the prime minister: 'Don't exhaust us. We suffered enough. ...Resign immediately....Let this wonderful nation deal with the failures and with the next battle that we might be already facing.'"
All sorts of claims were behind the numerous protests about the war: Some citizens complained about how the war was administered. Others spoke about the lack of statesmanship and the lack of decision making on the part of Israeli leaders. The reservists came home with stories about poor equipment; contradictory orders; operations being canceled, then reinstated overnight. Veteran generals thought the war could have ended after days rather than lingering for weeks. Mayors from the northern cities most affected by the war objected to the way the home front was neglected. Despite all of this, the majority of Israelis, though disappointed with the results, say that although the war was handled badly, it was justified.
A survey in the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth suggested that the government had become a lame duck. Sixty three percent of Israelis thought Olmert failed in the war and should resign.
In the last week of August, a survey in the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth suggested that the government had become a lame duck. Sixty three percent of Israelis thought Olmert failed in the war and should resign. Seventy four percent of those who were surveyed thought the same about Amir Peretz. Only 19 percent thought the government should remain intact. If elections were held that weekend, Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud opposition party would likely have won.
After listening to the people, many Knesset members demanded a state commission of inquiry. Such commissions were appointed after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and again after the first war in Lebanon in 1983. Olmert refused.
"We don't have the luxury of spending years on investigations that have nothing to do with learning lessons and preparing for the future," said Olmert as he named three different investigating committees he intended to gather. State inquiries are headed by a Supreme Court judge and nominated by the president of the Supreme Court, whereas government inquiries like those Olmert has put forward give the premier a lot of control over the appointees and their work.
"I call it the escape committee," said Member of Parliament Effi Eitam. "It was summoned to help the politicians escape from their responsibilities. It is meant to blame the army, whereas it is clear that you can't investigate the army without checking the orders it got from the state level."
"I want to make one thing clear: The responsibility for the decision to go to war is entirely mine," Olmert said, trying to appease public opinion.
"Olmert does not mean what he says," wrote Uzi Benziman, a leading political analyst for the Israel daily Haaretz. "When he declares that responsibility for the war is entirely his, he is pulling the wool over our eyes. His statements are meaningless if they are not accompanied by a practical conclusion," wrote Benziman, calling for Olmert's resignation.
Among many protests sparked by the war in Lebanon, this makeshift campaign site was one of two set up by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.
After the hot summer drew to a close, during which most Israelis lost their vacation, many went back to their business and a few remained encamped, but the anger and protests would not go away.
Last weekend, I saw thousands gathered in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for the largest demonstration against Olmert since the campaign started. Men and women of all ages, from all across Israel -- Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druz -- held signs calling for him to resign. In an odd coalition of those who were against the war and those who wanted to continue the fighting, speakers from both the left and the right called again for a state commission.
At the rally, Yossi Sarid, a former member of parliament with the leftist Meretz Party, told the trio of Olmert, Peretz and Halutz, "If you don't return home on your own initiative, Israeli democracy will send you home."
A few hours later, Olmert spoke at a news conference in Jerusalem: "I see things differently," he said. In recent weeks he has emphasized again and again Israel's achievements during and after the war, drawing heavily on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's confession that his group would not have abducted the Israeli soldiers had it known that it would lead to war in Lebanon.
"Hezbollah has been pushed back from the fence, from the border," Olmert said. "Most of the forces on the front line of Hezbollah have been destroyed. Most of the long-range missiles, which were the enemy's strategic threat over Israel, were destroyed in the first hours of the campaign. The heads of Hezbollah are homeless, rootless, hunted and seeking shelter."
In Olmert's defense, some analysts say that forcing him from office would only hand a symbolic victory to Nasrallah and politically destabilize Israel.
In Olmert's defense, some analysts here have said that forcing him from office over his handling of the war would only create a symbolic victory for Nasrallah and politically destabilize Israel.
For certain, these are confusing times for Israel. Soon after the war ended, several investigations against leading political figures resumed. Israel's president, Moshe Katsav, is being questioned on sexual harassment charges. The state comptroller is looking into three separate allegations involving Olmert. Another government minister was forced to resign after being charged with sexual harassment. Under a cloud of war, the coalition appears cracked and flawed.
Moti Kirshenbowm, a television commentator on the national news show I produce, explained Israel's predicament this way:
"What we experience here in a year other countries don't experience in a lifetime. Take Israelis to New Zealand and you will see the sheep freaking out. Who can remember what happened here a week ago, a month ago? When the last soldier leaves Lebanon, there will be another event or election. This is life in concentrate."
Hadas Ragolsky is a senior producer at the Israeli national television station, Channel 10, in Tel Aviv. She is a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World. More of Ragolsky's dispatches from Israel, including her reports during the recent conflict in southern Lebanon, are listed here.