Palestinian Authority officials on Tuesday expressed fear that embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would order a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip to divert attention from the harsh findings of the Winograd Report on last summer's war in Lebanon.
For many Palestinians and Arabs, the results of the report are an indication of Israel's "bankruptcy on all levels, especially the security and political level." Political commentators throughout the Arab world said the report was also a sign of Israel's military weakness and hailed Hizbullah for defeating the "invincible" IDF.
"It's possible that Olmert will try to evade responsibility for Israel's defeat in Lebanon by waging war on the Gaza Strip," PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told reporters in Gaza City. "Olmert is facing a serious crisis and this could be his way to salvage himself."
A senior PA official here expressed fear that the political turmoil in Israel would have a negative impact on the prospects of resuming peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. "Olmert is very weak now," he said. "I don't believe he will be able to take real decisions."
According to the official, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has been closely following the new crisis in Israel. "President Abbas is very interested in the latest developments in Israel," he added. "He is concerned that the crisis will negatively affect the peace process. We are also concerned that Olmert might embark on a military adventure in the Gaza Strip to cover up for his failure."
The official said it was unclear at this stage if Abbas and Olmert would meet next week. The two have been meeting twice a month at the request of US Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice to discuss bilateral issues. They were scheduled to meet next week in Jericho, but sources close to Abbas said it was highly unlikely that it would take place in the wake of the Winograd Report.
"The report does not help the peace process in the Middle East," said PA Deputy Prime Minister Azzam al-Ahmed of Fatah. "The crisis in Israel complicates matters and makes it difficult to talk about resuming peace talks with Israel. Now we will have to wait for several months before the crisis ends."
Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip said they did not rule out the possibility that Israel would try to compensate for its "defeat" in Lebanon by "stepping up its military aggression" against the Palestinians.
"This report reflects the extent of the deep crisis facing the Israel government," said a statement issued by Hamas. "The Israeli government has been taken hostage by Israeli extremists like Avigdor Lieberman, who call for waging war against the people of Palestine and Lebanon. Today it's clear that this failed government's policy is based on killing, destruction and extremism."
The statement said the findings of the Winograd Committee also illustrated the "state of chaos in the Israeli political and security establishment."
Political analyst Samir Judeh said the report was a "charge sheet" against the Israeli government. "This is the first time that Israel openly admits that it was defeated in war," he said. "The war against Lebanon was completely unjustified and, according to the report, it turned out to be one of the most humiliating defeats, for Israel has lost its power of deterrence."
Reflecting the general mood among many Arabs, the Palestinian editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, Abdel Bari Atwan, wrote that the war should be seen more as a victory for Hizbullah than a failure for Olmert.
"Olmert thought that the war on Lebanon was going to be simple like the other wars against Arab armies. That's why he, his defense minister and chief of staff led the war with full confidence and arrogance," he said.
"Most of the Arab wars with Israel did not last for more than a few days. But the Lebanese Islamic resistance remained steadfast for 34 days and managed to move the battle deep into Israel for the first time in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Islamic resistance in Lebanon has proved that the Israeli army can be defeated once there is a strong will and belief and once there is a clean national leadership. Hizbullah has every right to celebrate its victory."
While most Arabs viewed the scathing report as a sign of Israel's "defeat," a few took a different stance by looking at the positive aspects of Israel's democratic system.
"By establishing commissions of inquiry after wars and holding those responsible for failure accountable, Israel is showing how strong it is," said newspaper columnist Hassan Khader. "We in Palestine and the Arab world are weak because we have failed to stop our governments, establish commissions of inquiry, point a blaming finger at our leaders and draw conclusions from our mistakes."
He said that had the Palestinians established a mechanism of supervision in the past decade, they would have been in a much better situation today.
"We failed to establish commissions of inquiry into the way decisions were being made or the way money was being wasted," Khader said. "That's why we have reached a stage where gangs and militias are popping up as fast as mushrooms and are hijacking our cause."