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Israel planned for Lebanon war months in advance, PM says

By Conal Urquhart in Tel Aviv

The Guardian, Friday March 9 2007



Preparations for Israel's war in Lebanon last summer were drawn up at least four months before two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hizbullah in July, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, has admitted.

His submission to a commission of inquiry, leaked yesterday, contradicted the impression at the time that Israel was provoked into a battle for which it was ill-prepared. Mr Olmert told the Winograd commission, a panel of judges charged with investigating Israel's perceived defeat in the 34-day war, that he first discussed the possibility of war in January and asked to see military plans in March.

According to the Ha'aretz daily, which obtained details of Mr Olmert's testimony, the prime minister chose a plan featuring air attacks on Lebanon and a limited ground operation that would be implemented following a Hizbullah abduction. Hizbullah had made several attempts to capture Israeli soldiers on the border since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Israeli commentators believed that Mr Olmert and Amir Peretz, the defence minister, took the opportunity of the kidnapping to show they could manage a war in spite of their limited military experience. But the outcome of the war seemed to highlight their lack of experience and also deficiencies in Israel's military planning.

The commission's interim report is expected to be delivered by the end of the month. It was appointed by the government but if it were critical of Mr Olmert, it would be unlikely he could continue in office.

Shmuel Sandler, a political analyst, said it seemed that people close to Mr Olmert had leaked his submission, made on February 1, in an attempt to increase his popularity. In an opinion poll published this week, only 3% of Israeli voters said they would back Mr Olmert in an election, while 72% said he should resign.

Zalman Shoval of the Likud party said Mr Olmert's testimony cast his decisions in a worse light that before. "If he had prepared plans, then to any objective commentator this makes the situation worse," he said. "Why were the plans not carried out? It all also places a darker complexion on his decision to expand ground operations which led to the loss of 33 more Israeli lives."

On July 12, Hizbullah fighters abducted Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, both Israeli reservists, in an incident on the Israel-Lebanon border. Israel responded by launching air strikes on southern Lebanon before attacking other areas. Hizbullah began firing hundreds of rockets at northern Israel.

Mr Olmert said at the time that Israel went to war to force the return of the soldiers, eliminate Hizbullah's rocket supplies and push the militia north of the Litani river in southern Lebanon.

Israeli forces launched several ground operations, which met strong resistance. Troops had difficulty in moving supplies and troops around the battlefield because of Hizbullah's deployment of anti-tank weapons. After a final offensive in which Israel lost 33 soldiers, the government agreed a ceasefire without having achieved its objectives. In the fighting 1,200 Lebanese and 158 Israelis were killed. Of the dead almost 1,000 Lebanese and 41 Israelis were civilians.

Mr Olmert told the committee that he had ordered the final offensive to put pressure on the UN security council to improve the wording of the ceasefire in Israel's favour.

The war raised major concerns in Israel about the quality of preparations. Bomb shelters were badly maintained and many reservists found inadequate supplies at their depots. Many suggested that the army had become accustomed to fighting the ill-equipped Palestinians and was not prepared for Hizbullah's expertise.

Since the war, Mr Olmert has been fighting for his political survival. He has been battered by scandals involving himself and close colleagues and is subject to a series of inquiries into his competence and probity.

 




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