Olmert’s War Easier to Start Than Stop

JERUSALEM – Israeli commandos snatching Hezbollah operatives deep inside Lebanon. Israeli soldiers battling Hezbollah fighters in villages along the Lebanese-Israel border. Thousands of troops streaming into south Lebanon. Hezbollah rockets again raining down by the dozens on towns in northern Israel. Fighter planes renewing their bombardment of targets inside Lebanon.

Just over two days ago, when Israel agreed to a 48-hour hiatus in its aerial bombing campaign in Lebanon – to investigate the strike in the village of Qana that killed dozens of civilians – it had seemed as if the fighting might be winding down. But with the Israeli Cabinet having decided Tuesday to expand the ground incursion in south Lebanon, and committing thousands more troops to the campaign, a cease-fire hardly seems imminent.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made that clear: "There is no cease-fire and there will be no cease-fire in the coming days," he declared this week, at the same time telling Israelis they should prepare themselves for more rockets and for "pain, blood, and tears." Israel, he has said, will not agree to an unconditional cease-fire, as European countries have been demanding, but will insist that an international peacekeeping force deploy in south Lebanon before it ends its military offensive.

With Israeli troops still fighting Hezbollah guerrillas in villages in south Lebanon on Wednesday night, Israeli officers said the military was close to taking control of a six- to eight-kilometer strip of territory inside Lebanon that would be a no-go zone for Hezbollah. The strip of territory was very similar to the buffer zone Israel occupied in south Lebanon for 18 years before withdrawing in mid-2000 after incessant attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas on its troops.

It is not clear how far north the army plans to advance. There have been some suggestions that troops would push as far as the Litani River, some 30 km from the Israeli border. Ephraim Sneh, Labor Party member of parliament and a former deputy defense minister, said he expected the army to advance towards the Litani. "This war must not end in a tie," he said. "The goals of this war cannot be achieved without using more force for a longer time."

How much time Israel has to achieve its stated goal of weakening Hezbollah and forcing the Shia group away from the border is not entirely clear. After meeting Tuesday in the United States with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, veteran Israeli politician Shimon Peres said Israel had "weeks, not months" to complete its operation. But Rice said the timetable was much shorter – "days, not weeks."

Olmert’s comments Wednesday that "Israel will stop fighting when the international force will be present in the south of Lebanon" were clear indications that he would not accept the demand by many European countries, who are likely to make up the force, for an immediate cease-fire.

Israel, backed by the U.S., has been insisting that an unconditional cease-fire will simply recreate the situation that existed on the eve of the fighting, with Hezbollah operating freely along the border with Israel. "We can’t stop before because if there will not be a presence of a very effective and robust military international force, Hezbollah will be there and we will have achieved nothing," Olmert added.

There is a growing sense in Israel, though, that the military offensive could end next week after the UN Security Council meets Monday on the issue of a cease-fire. In the last 48 hours, Olmert has begun sounding like he is preparing the public for the end of hostilities, and honing the "victory" message he will want Israelis to digest.

With Olmert sure to encounter questions over the army’s inability to neutralize Hezbollah rockets – over 2,000 have slammed into northern Israel since the fighting began July 12 – he has begun telling Israelis that no one can promise them that once the offensive is over there "won’t be missiles within range of the state of Israel."

But, he insists, the military operation has bolstered Israel’s deterrent capacity. "No missiles, no matter where they come from – Iran, Syria, or Lebanon – can break the will of the Israeli people to defend their country, and this is a lesson which will prevail long after the fire will cease in this part of the world," he said.

Olmert told Reuters in an interview Wednesday that "Hezbollah has been disarmed by the military operation of Israel to a large degree" and that more than "700 command positions of Hezbollah were entirely wiped out by the Israeli army. All the population which is the power base of the Hezbollah in Lebanon was displaced."

Hezbollah, though, does not seem to be listening. Over 200 rockets hit Israeli towns across northern Israel Wednesday, killing one person in what was the heaviest bombardment by the Shia organization in a single day since the fighting erupted.

More evidence that Olmert is beginning to look beyond the fighting were his comments on what has been the cornerstone of his policy agenda since taking office four months ago – separation from the Palestinians by means of a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank, to ensure a Jewish majority for Israel.

The prime minister intimated Wednesday that the current conflict could boost his plan. "I genuinely believe that the outcome of the present [conflict] and the emergence of a new order that will provide more stability and will defeat the forces of terror will help create the necessary environment that will allow me … to create a new momentum between us and the Palestinians."

"We want to separate from the Palestinians," he continued. "I’m ready to do it. I’m ready to cope with these demands. It’s not easy, it’s very difficult, but we are elected to our positions to do things and not to sit idle."

But once the fighting in Lebanon is over, the task of persuading the Israeli public to buy into his West Bank plan might be even tougher than Olmert imagines.

Israelis have watched the army pull out of Lebanon unilaterally, the attacks by Hezbollah along their northern border continue, and the army reenter south Lebanon. They have watched the military pull out of Gaza unilaterally, the rocket attacks by Palestinian militants on southern Israeli towns continue, and the army reenter Gaza.

Can Olmert now persuade Israelis to back another unilateral withdrawal, this time in the West Bank, that will leave Palestinian militants on the doorstep of Israel’s major population centers? His answer, no doubt, will be that the fierce military offensive he unleashed in Lebanon has made the price to be paid for violating Israel’s borders painfully clear.

Read more by Peter Hirschberg