Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, was obliged to admit “shortcomings” in the 34-day-old conflict in Lebanon yesterday as he launched what may prove a protracted fight for his own political survival.
Mr Olmert’s admission in a stormy Knesset session came in the face of devastating poll figures showing a majority of the Israeli public believes none or only a very small part of the goals of the war had been achieved.
Adding insult to injury, the leader of Hizbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, crowed on television that his guerrillas had achieved a “strategic historic victory” over Israel.
The Prime Minister, who was repeatedly heckled by opposition MPs during his address, insisted the international commitments in Friday night’s UN resolution would “change fundamentally” the balance of forces on the country’s northern border.
But, facing his first major political crisis since winning the election five months ago, he acknowledged “the overall responsibility for this operation lies with me, the Prime Minister. I am not asking to share this with anyone.” A number of Knesset members including the Israeli Arab Ahmed Tibi, a furious opponent of the war, were ejected from the chamber.
The opening of what is likely to prove a bitter post-mortem came as the two sides began an uneasy truce. The conflict is estimated to have cost well over 1,000 Lebanese lives as well as those of 156 Israelis – civilians and soldiers.
The fragility of the ceasefire was underlined by four incidents in which Israeli troops shot dead six Hizbollah fighters after the ceasefire began at 8am yesterday. The Israeli military insisted the incidents were within guidelines permitting troops to open fire when threatened and did not jeopardise the truce.
Promising that the government “will have to examine ourselves at all levels,” Mr Olmert fought to pre-empt a probable campaign by the political right by declaring that Hizbollah had been dealt a “harsh blow”. He added that the guerrilla group was no longer “a state within a state” or a “terrorist organisation that is allowed to act inside a state as an arm of the axis of evil”, referring to Syria and Iran.
While refraining from a direct personal attack on Mr Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right- wing Likud opposition, lost little time in declaring “there were many failures, failures in identifying the threat, failures in preparing to meet the threat, failures in the management of the war, failures in the management of the home front.”
Critics from right and left were fortified by a Globes Smith poll showing, remarkably given the degree to which the army is embedded in Israeli society, that 52 per cent of electors believed the Israel Defence Forces had been unsuccessful in its Lebanon offensive as opposed to 44 per cent who believed it did well.
Mr Netanyahu also pointedly chose to attack unilateral withdrawals – the issue on which Mr Olmert fought his election in March. Mr Netanyahu said: “We left Lebanon to the last centimetre and they are firing. We left Gaza to the last centimetre and they are firing.”
Meanwhile, the Hizbollah leader said he believes the Lebanese army and international troops are “incapable of protecting Lebanon”. He also said it was the “wrong time” for a public discussion on disarming the guerrilla group.
At the eastern end of the northern border, heavy artillery barrages and repeated tank machine-gun fire continued yesterday up to the ceasefire deadline.
But as the artillery batteries fell silent and firing stopped, there was a final single explosion at about 8.05pm, sending a plume of grey smoke upwards before the uneasy calm began.
Amid a wave of angry civilian reactions in Israel after more than a month in which an estimated 3,500 rockets were fired into northern Israel, Sam Echahid, the manager of a local supermarket, was asked whether he thought the ceasefire would hold. He said: “I hope not. We haven’t done anything yet.”