Israeli soldiers spend New Year holiday in Lebanon

Several hundred Israeli soldiers this weekend spent the Jewish New Year holiday inside Lebanon after a further delay prevented them returning home for the festivities.

The last of Israel’s 30,000-strong invasion force are now expected to withdraw by the end of the month after completing a handover to UN and Lebanese forces.

The army had hoped to have them back by sunset on Friday to coincide symbolically with the beginning of the 10 High Holy Days that mark an annual cycle of repentance and a commitment to a fresh start.

The country’s military chiefs and political leaders were not alone in hoping for a fresh start after the trauma of the 34-day conflict with Hizbollah. However, their expressions of repentance about failings in its conduct must be set against their continued insistence that Israel won the war.

In a spate of media interviews to mark Rosh Hashanah – New Year – Ehud Olmert, prime minister, said: “If the war in Lebanon had to be done again, I would do it again.”

Mr Olmert’s generally upbeat analysis of the postwar situation was starkly at odds with that of the general public, to judge from the latest opinion polls. A majority of respondents to a survey in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth believed he should resign, along with Amir Peretz, his defence minister, and Dan Halutz, the chief of staff.

Surveying the state of the country at the end of the Jewish year 5766, 59 per cent of those polled said it was not good. Only 7 per cent believed Mr Olmert was the most suitable candidate for prime minister, although he might have taken some comfort from the 57 per cent who said nobody else in Israel was worthy of the post.

Although Mr Olmert was heckled at a recent Kadima party gathering by relatives of soldiers who died in Lebanon, the spate of protests that immediately followed last month’s ceasefire has largely subsided. The consensus among analysts is that, for lack of an alternative, Mr Olmert’s government will probably survive.

The latest polls showed a rise in support for the rightwing Likud and Yisrael Beitenu parties. But analysts interpreted that as more of a protest against the coalition than of a genuine desire to see a rightwing government.

A practical consequence of the postwar political malaise is that it has left the government without a political strategy on the peace process at a time when the international community shows signs of becoming more engaged in promoting a settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians.

Commenting on his decision to freeze his plan for withdrawal from part of the West Bank, Mr Olmert said: “This need of waking up every morning with a plan that is ripe, ready, complete, encompassing, that provides an answer to all the questions, is unbalanced and is not right.”

Israel’s lack of direction is matched on the Palestinian side. There, efforts to form a Hamas-Fatah government of national unity were this weekend “back to zero”, in the words of Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, after Hamas said such a government would not recognise Israel.

Enthusiasm for a unity government expressed in New York last week by the Quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – has not been matched on the ground.

Local Hamas officials, goaded by their exiled leadership, are reluctant to abandon key tenets of their ideology, while many in Fatah believe the party would be better off rebuilding its own internal strength rather than enter a coalition with the Islamists.

Before the Lebanon war, members of the Quartet hoped Mr Olmert’s “realignment” plan in the West Bank would provide a basis for renewed direct talks between him and Mr Abbas to make the proposed withdrawal part of a negotiated process.

Analysts believe that political stagnation on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide means that such optimism is also “back to zero” for the immediate future.

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