Analysis: Olmert loads the gun but doesn't fire it

Decision when to push north will depend on decisions made in Beirut, Paris and NY, not just in J'lem.

olmert in knesset, turni (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert in knesset, turni
(photo credit: AP [file])
The security cabinet, in dramatic, swashbuckler style, decided to finally unsheathe its large sword Wednesday, but also to keep it poised high in the air - not yet stabbing - until further notice. And therein lies the rub. The communique issued after the six-hour security cabinet meeting stated that the forum decided to approve plans to expand the operation presented by the IDF. But in the very next paragraph it stated that the security cabinet empowered Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to decide when to begin the operation. This decision - when to send tens of thousands of troops northward to the Litani - will be dependent on decisions made in Beirut, Paris and New York, not just in Jerusalem. Lebanon could yet be spared the full fury of the IDF force, Israel signaled Wednesday, if it accepted the basic principles of the original US-French cease-fire draft drawn up on Saturday. That draft called for an IDF withdrawal from South Lebanon only after an international force moved in to replace the withdrawing Israeli soldiers and keep Hizbullah from moving back in. Only after Lebanon and the Arab world rejected this draft did the government decide - a full month after the war began - to significantly widen the campaign. And now it will wait to see how Lebanon and the Arab world react to the newest threat before deciding when to actually implement it. In other words, the gun is loaded, and Israel is giving the international community time to pressure the Lebanese government into making the "right move" so that it won't have to be fired. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, at a Jerusalem press conference with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said as much when telling reporters that "the question about where the region is headed is dependent not only on Israel's military actions, but also on the decisions of the international community, and the decisions of [Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad] Saniora and the Saniora government." She also indicated the nature of Lebanon's "right move," being the first Israeli official to formally react approvingly to the Lebanese government's announcement two days ago that it would deploy 15,000 troops in the South. While Olmert on Tuesday called the proposal "interesting," Livni took the Israeli response up a notch Wednesday, saying it was "positive," and that it would be important for the Lebanese army to be escorted south by an international force that would "make sure that the area remains free of Hizbullah." If this type of arrangement could be worked out and then worked into the UN cease-fire resolution being hammered out, it could conceivably keep Olmert and Peretz from ever giving the okay for the expanded military operation. From the IDF's point of view, however, the plans are ready and the troops are in place. All that is needed now is the green light. And the IDF believes this will be forthcoming from Olmert since, at the end of the day, a victory is needed and Israel is still far away from achieving one. A push to the Litani, senior officials stressed Wednesday, is the only way to stop the Katyusha rocket attacks. With no serious diplomatic movement in the works, the time could best be used to press forward to try and deal a heavy blow to Hizbullah - one that would knock out its diplomatic power and allow for the creation of a new diplomatic order in Lebanon. On the tactical level, the lack of progress in the villages of southern Lebanon is also not good for the IDF. Sitting static in the villages, senior officers said, was what was causing the large number of IDF casualties over the past week. "We need to continuously be on the offensive and on the move," said a frustrated brigade commander who claimed to have been sitting in the same village in the eastern sector for the past week. "To win a war, you need to be on the offensive, pressing forward and keeping the enemy on its toes." That is why the IDF wants the massive incursion. With the diplomatic echelons at an apparent loss on how to end this war, the army feels that it can't just sit still and, if there is no alternative, then it needs to move onwards, deeper and further into enemy territory. But even as the diplomatic initiatives in the UN seemed to be faltering, the IDF appeared on Wednesday to be warming up to the idea of ultimately seeing the Lebanese military deploy in southern Lebanon and replace the Israeli troops. Teams of IDF officers, Defense Ministry officials and representatives from the Prime Minister's Office have been working around the clock lately to try and come up with the right exit strategy. The Lebanese military is known to be filled with Shi'ites, some of them fervent Hizbullah supporters and sympathizers, and the IDF is skeptical about whether such a force can effectively curb Hizbullah and prevent the guerrilla group from rebuilding itself and launching attacks against Israel. A multinational force - which Defense Minister Amir Peretz has said he would like to see made up of NATO member countries - would be a different proposition. Trouble is, no country is jumping at the opportunity to participate. As one senior IDF officer intimately involved in military relations with NATO explained this week, "no country in its right mind would send troops to Lebanon. No one wants to take up the mission to actively fight Hizbullah." However unsatisfactory, that would leave the Lebanese army as possibly Israel's last and only ticket out of Lebanon.