Is the Israeli Army Showing Cracks?


July 27, 2006 — -- Nearly two weeks into the new war in the Middle East, two rather surprising developments have emerged: The Israeli army, which trades on its almost mythical abilities, has shown some cracks. And the army's enemy, Hezbollah, appears stronger and more elusive than almost anyone imagined.

None of which was lost on the Israeli security cabinet, which met for six hours today at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, and decided to continue the same limited operations against the Hezbollah militants.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz are the primary advocates of restricting the use of firepower against the Hezbollah militia, according to sources. And while there are anonymous critics in the government, most have fallen into line.

The deaths of nine more Israeli soldiers, though, have come as a profound shock to a country in which the military looms so large and plays such an active role in the life of every Israeli.

Over the course of this conflict, the Israeli public has had to endure a series of events that can only be described as humiliating.

First were the kidnappings of their soldiers. Then came the rockets, the range and numbers of which were not known in advance. Then came battlefield setbacks, including the fatal collision of two helicopters and the downing of a third by friendly fire. Those, plus the ambushes that have claimed the lives of crack troops, are sapping the country's resolve.

Night after night and day after day, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have had to huddle in bomb shelters when, for most people in this country, it has always been their enemies who've run for cover. On television, the people here have seen reports of hysterical Israelis confined to hospital wards -- so traumatic is the experience of being attacked.

There is no relief to be found in the newspapers, either, which ask questions like "Has the army failed?" Another columnist called the army "stupid."

Support for liquidating Hezbollah at whatever cost is still strong, though not as strong as it was last week. It's down from 90 percent to 82 percent in the most recent polling.

The call-up of thousands more reservists, people who have jobs and families in civilian life, is bound to cause more consternation, especially if the conflict drags on for weeks, as some generals have suggested it might.

In addition, there is the very real concern about the reaction of other Arab nations to all this. One columnist, Zeev Schiff of Haaretz newspaper, said if it is shown that Hezbollah can fight Israel to some sort of standstill, the damage to Israel's deterrent capacity will be incalculable. After all, he pointed out in today's paper, the moderate Arab states of Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel not because they love Israelis, but because they concluded that victory over the Jewish state was impossible.

Remember, this is a country that defeated the combined armies of its enemies in six days. They are two weeks into a conflict against a much smaller militia and have little to show for it.

"I don't think we have the option of not winning," said Yossi Alpher, former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

But how long will the Israeli public remain patient when it tends to believe the government doesn't know what it is doing? asked former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in an interview with ABC News.

Barak believes the plan in place can bring the hostilities to an end in about two weeks. So Olmert's government is safe -- for now.

Meanwhile, more Hezbollah rockets landed in the north today.

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