Demoralised Israelis blame political and military leaders

There were further signs on Friday of a deepening public malaise in Israel over the outcome of the war in Lebanon, with the latest opinion polls indicating a majority of voters wanted to change both the political and military leaderships.

As Ehud Olmert, prime minister, appeared to be losing a political battle to stave off a state inquiry into the conduct of the war, reservists recently demobilised from south Lebanon joined families of the Israeli war dead to demand his resignation.

The population of an encampment of protest tents outside the prime minister’s Jerusalem office has grown to around 1,000, a relatively small demonstration in Israeli terms but one that appeared to capture the public mood.

“Things have never seemed so bad,” one Israeli volunteered. “Everybody is depressed.”

The mood has been exacerbated by daily warnings in the media that the conflict in Lebanon could flare up again – 73 per cent of people in one poll on Friday agreed – and that Israel could eventually find itself at war with Syria or Iran.

It has been accompanied by a marked shift to the right, according to Friday’s polls, with voters challenging the view that unilateral withdrawals from Arab territory – whether Lebanese or Palestinian – had enhanced the prospects of peace.

The government’s claim that it fulfilled most of its war aims during the 34-day conflict with Hizbollah has failed to sway public opinion, which was shocked by the army’s apparent lack of readiness.

Not all the part-time soldiers among the protesters are insisting that the government should go immediately. However, they are demanding a full-scale inquest into what they describe as an ill-managed conflict which they entered ill-trained, badly equipped and unprepared.

An ad hoc forum of reserve officers and commanders was formed this week to call for an inquiry and the resignation of Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, chief of staff.

In a poll in Friday’s mass-circulation Yedioth Aharonoth, 54 per cent of respondents said Gen Halutz should quit.

Mr Olmert fared even worse, with 63 per cent calling on the prime minister to resign, a figures that rose to 74 per cent in the event that a suitable candidate were found to replace him. The findings reflected the perception that there was no obvious candidate to fill his post, at least not from his ruling Kadima party.

The Yedioth poll and a separate survey in the daily Ma’ariv showed Kadima losing support to the rightwing Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and to the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, the leading politician of the Russian immigrant community. Mr Lieberman has stoked fears among Israel’s 1m Arab minority by proposing that Arab parliamentarians who allegedly supported Hizbollah should be put on trial.

Ma’ariv said on Friday that the Lebanon war had worsened the already problematic relations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs. It published a poll indicating that, while only 18 per cent of Israeli Arabs supported Hassan Nasrallah, a majority of Jews believed all or most of their Arab fellow citizens backed the Hizbollah leader.

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