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Israeli Leaders Fault Bush on War

By Robert Parry
August 13, 2006

Amid the political and diplomatic fallout from Israel’s faltering invasion of Lebanon, some Israeli officials are privately blaming President George W. Bush for egging Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into the ill-conceived military adventure against the Hezbollah militia in south Lebanon.

Bush conveyed his strong personal support for the military offensive during a White House meeting with Olmert on May 23, according to sources familiar with the thinking of senior Israeli leaders.

Olmert, who like Bush lacks direct wartime experience, agreed that a dose of military force against Hezbollah might damage the guerrilla group’s influence in Lebanon and intimidate its allies, Iran and Syria, countries that Bush has identified as the chief obstacles to U.S. interests in the Middle East.

As part of Bush’s determination to create a “new Middle East” – one that is more amenable to U.S. policies and desires – Bush even urged Israel to attack Syria, but the Olmert government refused to go that far, according to Israeli sources.

One source said some Israeli officials thought Bush’s attack-Syria idea was “nuts” since much of the world would have seen the bombing campaign as overt aggression.

In an article on July 30, the Jerusalem Post referred to Bush’s interest in a wider war involving Syria. Israeli “defense officials told the Post last week that they were receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria,” the newspaper reported.

While balking at an expanded war into Syria, Olmert did agree on the need to show military muscle in Lebanon as a prelude to facing down Iran over its nuclear program, which Olmert has called an “existential” threat to Israel.

With U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq, Bush and his neoconservative advisers saw the inclusion of Israeli forces as crucial for advancing a strategy that would punish Syria for supporting Iraqi insurgents, advance the confrontation with Iran and isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

But the month-long war has failed to achieve its goals of destroying Hezbollah forces in south Lebanon or intimidating Iran and Syria.

Instead, Hezbollah guerrillas fought Israeli troops to a virtual standstill in villages near the border and much of the world saw Israel’s bombing raids across Lebanon – which killed hundreds of civilians – as “disproportionate.”

Now, as the conflict winds down, some Israeli officials are ruing the Olmert-Bush pact on May 23 and fault Bush for pushing Olmert into the conflict.

Building Pressure

Soon after the May 23 meeting in Washington, Israel began to ratchet up pressure on the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories and on Hezbollah and other Islamic militants in Lebanon. As part of this process, Israel staged low-key attacks in both Lebanon and Gaza. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com “A ‘Pretext’ War in Lebanon.”]

The tit-for-tat violence led to the Hamas seizure of an Israeli soldier on June 24 and then to Israeli retaliatory strikes in Gaza. That, in turn, set the stage for Hezbollah’s attack on an Israeli outpost and the capture of two more Israeli soldiers on July 12.

Hezbollah’s July 12 raid became the trigger that Bush and Olmert had been waiting for. With the earlier attacks unknown or forgotten, Israel and the U.S. skillfully rallied international condemnation of Hezbollah for what was called an unprovoked attack and a “kidnapping” of Israeli soldiers.

Behind the international criticism of Hezbollah, Bush and Olmert justified an intense air campaign against Lebanese targets, killing civilians and destroying much of Lebanon’s commercial infrastructure. Israeli troops also crossed into southern Lebanon with the intent of delivering a devastating military blow against Hezbollah, which retaliated by firing Katyusha rockets into Israel..

However, the Israeli operation was eerily reminiscent of the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Like the U.S. assault, Israel relied heavily on “shock and awe” air power and committed an inadequate number of soldiers to the battle.

Israeli newspapers have been filled with complaints from soldiers who say some reservists weren’t issued body armor while other soldiers found their equipment either inferior or inappropriate to the battlefield conditions.

Israeli troops also encountered fierce resistance from Hezbollah guerrillas, who took a page from the Iraqi insurgents by using explosive booby traps and ambushes to inflict heavier than expected casualties on the Israelis. 

Channel 2 in Israel disclosed that several top military commanders wrote a letter to Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the chief of staff, criticizing the war planning as chaotic and out of line with the combat training of the soldiers and officers. [Washington Post, Aug. 12, 2006]

One Israeli plan to use llamas to deliver supplies in the rugged terrain of south Lebanon turned into an embarrassment when the animals simply sat down.

Reporter Nahum Barnea, who traveled with an Israeli unit in south Lebanon, compared the battle to “the famous Tom and Jerry cartoons” with the powerful Israeli military playing the role of the cat Tom and the resourceful Hezbollah guerrillas playing the mouse Jerry. “In every conflict between them, Jerry wins,” Barnea wrote.

Olmert Criticized

Back in Israel, some leading newspapers have begun calling for Olmert’s resignation.

“If Olmert runs away now from the war he initiated, he will not be able to remain prime minister for even one more day,” the newspaper Haaretz wrote in a front-page analysis. “You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power.

“You cannot bury 120 Israelis in cemeteries, keep a million Israelis in shelters for a month and then say, ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’” [See Washington Post, Aug. 12, 2006]

For his part, Bush spent July and early August fending off international demands for an immediate cease-fire. Bush wanted to give Olmert as much time as possible to bomb targets across Lebanon and dislodge Hezbollah forces in the south.

But instead of turning the Lebanese population against Hezbollah – as Washington and Tel Aviv had hoped – the devastation rallied public support behind Hezbollah.

As the month-long conflict took on the look of a public-relations disaster for Israel, the Bush administration dropped its resistance to international cease-fire demands and joined with France in crafting a United Nations plan for stopping the fighting.

Quoting “a senior administration official” with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the New York Times reported that “it increasingly seemed that Israel would not be able to achieve a military victory, a reality that led the Americans to get behind a cease-fire.” [NYT, Aug. 12, 2006]

But the repercussions from Israel’s failed Lebanon offensive are likely to continue. Olmert must now confront the political damage at home and the chief U.S. adversaries in the Middle East may be emboldened by the outcome, more than chastened.

As in the Iraq War, Bush has revealed again how reliance on tough talk and military might can sometimes undercut – not build up – U.S. influence in the strategically important Middle East.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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