Leading article: Israel's bitter harvest in Lebanon

The Independent

Published: 12 August 2006

The Israeli cabinet took the decision on Wednesday to extend the war on Hizbollah deeper into Lebanon, then delayed it while negotiations continued at the UN Security Council. Last night the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, authorised the advance. The link between the bargaining at the UN and Israel's next move on the battlefield was made manifest.

To expand operations in Lebanon, however, is a perilous course, not just militarily. In what could mark a turning point for the Israeli government, public opinion is forsaking the war. Peace Now, the organisation formed to protest against the last war in Lebanon, has abandoned its support and advocated a political solution. It called a demonstration outside the defence ministry in Tel Aviv on Thursday and accused the government of Ehud Olmert of ignoring the political options available and allowing the war to "spiral out of control".

Disillusionment with the war is not limited to the Israeli left. At the start, Mr Olmert enjoyed all the domestic support that Israeli governments expect when they send the troops into action. After one month, in which more than 100 Israelis have been killed and northern Israel has suffered repeated missile strikes, that support has begun seriously to flag. The popularity of the Prime Minister, which rose following his tough response to Hizbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers, has fallen sharply. His coalition, and with it his own position, are under increasing pressure.

Israel is not used to unsuccessful military engagements. Its fighting machine is renowned for its discipline and its efficacy. The widespread expectation, not just in Israel, was that a short, sharp strike would bring Hizbollah to heel. That this has not happened may be because Israeli intelligence - uncharacteristically - underestimated Hizbollah's accumulated firepower, because the top brass were caught on the hop, or because many Israelis, hopeful of a period of peace after last year's withdrawal from Gaza, were sceptical of the benefits from a new war.

In any event, the military operation to date has been in very many respects a failure. In humanitarian and public relations terms, it has been a disaster. There can be no guarantee at all that a further advance into Lebanon will bring Israel any more success - on the contrary. Mr Olmert would be wise not to close the door to the political solution his critics are now urging.