Olmert says responsible for ‘shortcomings’

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told parliament Monday that he took full responsibility for the conduct of the battle with Hizbollah and “shortcomings”, as Israel’s wartime unity collapsed and opposition politicians began criticising the monthlong fight against the Lebanese fighters.

Though Olmert’s coalition appeared to be secure for now, his government emerged from the battle badly weakened, putting in danger his plan to withdraw from much of the West Bank and draw Israel’s final borders, the centrepiece of his governing programme.

Opposition politicians demanded a commission of inquiry into the conduct of the battle as a new poll showed support for Olmert and his centrist Kadima Party had plummeted.

In a nationally televised speech to parliament hours after a ceasefire took effect in southern Lebanon, Olmert painted the war and the UN resolution that ended the fighting as an important victory for Israel that changed the strategic balance in the region and badly weakened Hizbollah.

“[Israeli] soldiers have, to an extent not yet publicly disclosed, battered this murderous organisation, its military and organisational infrastructure, its long-term capabilities, its huge arsenal, which it built over many years, and also the self-confidence of its members and leaders,” Olmert said. “In all battles, in all encounters with Hizbollah, the [army] had the upper hand, and of this there is no doubt.”

Since the fighting began July 12, 157 Israelis were killed, including 39 civilians and at least 118 soldiers. Lebanese officials reported more than 1,000 people killed. Hizbollah said 68 of its fighters were killed in battle, but Israel claimed its forces killed nearly 500 of the fighters.

During the fighting, most of Israel’s major politicians refrained from criticising the government. But in recent days some began speaking out, with hawks saying Israel should have sent in ground forces earlier and doves criticising Israel’s final military surge — after the passage of the UN ceasefire deal Friday — that killed 33 soldiers. Many analysts also argued that the army was unprepared and that it was dangerously overconfident in its fight with its tenacious foe.

Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Likud Party, said there were serious problems with the war.

“There were many failures, failures in identifying the threat, failures in preparing to meet the threat, failures in the management of the war, failures in the management of the home front,” Netanyahu told the Knesset. “Without a doubt we shall need later on to learn the lessons and fix the mistakes.” Olmert acknowledged there were “deficiencies” in the way the war was conducted. “We will have to review ourselves in all the battles,” he said. “We won’t sweep things under the carpet.” But he also appealed for patience from those who were disappointed that Israel had not crushed Hizbollah.

“The Zionist movement’s struggle against terror, like the entire free world’s battle against terror, didn’t begin today and won’t end in the foreseeable future,” he said.

“It is a long-term battle, difficult and complex, that demands restraint, resolve, steadfastness and patience.” Many did not accept Olmert’s explanations.

Three lawmakers were ejected from the chamber for heckling him and political opponents on the right and left demanded an investigation into the government’s conduct.

“There is no way there will not be a commission of inquiry after a month like this, which was a nightmare for us all,” Yossi Beilin, the head of the dovish Meretz Party, told Israel Television.

However, only the prime minister can create such a commission, and Olmert has not yet made any such commitment.

A poll published Monday night on the website of the Globes financial daily, found that 52 per cent of Israelis polled think the army did not succeed in achieving its aims in Lebanon and only 44 per cent said it did. Support for Olmert’s Kadima, which won 29 seats in March elections for the 120-member Knesset, also plunged, and the party would receive less than 20 seats if new elections were held now, according to the poll.

The poll of 500 people was taken August 13 and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Support for Olmert within his coalition appeared firm, but his drop in public support made it unlikely he would push forward any time soon with his West Bank withdrawal plan, which would further enrage hardliners. Olmert did not mention his plan at all during his speech.

Government critics were angry that the ceasefire deal — which was to send Lebanese soldiers and a multinational force to replace Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon — did not secure the release of the two Israeli soldiers captured in the July 12 Hizbollah that triggered the fighting. The government’s inability to get them back could also hurt Olmert, especially with Karmit Goldwasser, the new bride of abducted soldier Ehud Goldwasser, waging an emotional public campaign to secure his release.

“The captives need to come home before — long before — the last soldier leaves Lebanon,” she said hours after listening to Olmert’s speech from parliament’s visitor’s gallery. Olmert promised to do everything he could to win the soldiers’ freedom.

Lawmaker Benny Elon from the hardline National Union-National Religious Party faction said the ceasefire deal would not prevent a future outbreak of violence, which Olmert’s government was incapable of handling.

“We can’t win the next war with this leadership,” he said.

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