The first cracks in Israeli support for the war in Lebanon emerged Thursday, with leading intellectuals and mainstream politicians criticizing the government’s decision to send more soldiers into Hezbollah territory.
Every Friday for a month, anti-war activists have demonstrated against Israel’s retaliation for Hezbollah’s July 12 cross-border raid, but they never drew more than a handful of people. Opinion polls showed backing for the war at about 80 percent.
But some peace activists who had remained quiet or even supported the fighting now say it has gone on long enough.
Three of Israel’s most successful authors and intellectuals — Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua — on Thursday urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to focus on diplomatic rather than military initiatives.
“We are at a crossroads between the green light given for continuing military operations and explorations for a political solution,” Yehoshua said.
The nascent turnabout came after Olmert’s Security Cabinet voted Wednesday to extend the ground offensive to the Litani River, 18 miles from the Israeli border. It delayed the start of the operation to give diplomats a few more days to work out a cease-fire, officials said.
Earlier in the week, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora offered to deploy the Lebanese army along Israel’s border, reinforced by international peacekeepers positioned between Hezbollah and Israel.
Olmert called the plan “interesting,” but the Israeli government made no specific response, instead voting for an expanded offensive.
“Israel was right when it chose to respond with force to Hezbollah’s violent provocation,” said Oz, an eloquent voice of the Israeli left. He called Hezbollah an arm of radical Islam that would celebrate Israel’s annihilation, and said its defeat would be a triumph for moderates in the Middle East.
However, the Lebanese plan “was not only a turning point, it was a victory for Israel’s basic demand,” Oz said. Israel should have told Saniora his plan was a good basis for negotiation and halted its offensive.
More war risks past gains, one says
“If they had offered this to us a month ago, we would have jumped at it,” said Grossman.
Continued warfare risks the gains Israel has made and could cause the collapse of the Lebanese government, with Hezbollah emerging as Lebanon’s predominant power, said Grossman.
About 600 people attended a rally in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Though small compared with the tens of thousands who protested Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it marked a revival of Israel’s dormant peace movement.
Three of the 12 ministers in Olmert’s inner Cabinet abstained in Wednesday’s vote. Shimon Peres and Ofer Pines-Paz argued that diplomatic channels should be exhausted before expanding the war, while Eli Yishai wanted to rely on airstrikes rather than risk more ground troops, the Haaretz newspaper reported.
Longest war in 58 years
At 30 days, the Lebanon conflict is Israel’s longest war since independence in 1948. With more than 100 civilian and military casualties, the seed of discontent is growing over the army’s failure to dislodge Hezbollah and stop the hail of rockets on northern Israel.
Public sentiment mostly has called for more aggressive action, not less — a likely factor in the government’s decision to escalate military operations.
But doubts have been growing about whether Hezbollah can be destroyed, as Israel set out to do a month ago.
“We are getting lost in pursuit of a victory that is not there,” wrote mainstream columnist Nahum Barnea in the Yediot Aharonot daily.
“There is no point investing in a lost cause,” Barnea wrote, urging Olmert to “take what they’re offering you ... and run.”
“Today the Zionist left has to express itself,” said Yossi Beilin, head of the dovish Meretz Party. “We gave a month and we held back in motions of no confidence, we held back in votes. We are saying, ’No more. Go make an agreement, don’t go ask America for more time.”’