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Saturday Feature
Israel's unlikely warrior
Harvey Morris

          In the midst of the latest war to afflict the Middle East, it is easy to forget that Ehud Olmert, the man in charge on the Israeli side, has occupied the prime minister's chair for less than 100 days.
Having barely emerged from the shadow of his predecessor and mentor, Ariel Sharon, the 60-year-old career politician has already joined the slender ranks of world figures to whom everyone can put a name. Only Hizbollah's Hassan Nasrullah rivals him for overnight international fame.
Precipitated into the role of wartime leader, Mr Olmert has attracted extravagant comparisons at home with John Kennedy, who faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis, and even Winston Churchill.
The Kennedy analogy is inexact in so far as the late US president succeeded in avoiding war. Mr Olmert was more than a little Churchillian, however, when he warned the Israeli people this week to prepare for more "blood, pain and tears".
For a man whose highest ambition a year ago was to be finance minister, he now sees his role in global terms, relishing his close relationship with leaders such as George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
"We all share the same commitment to the basic values of democracy, of equality, of tolerance and we are ready to fight for these principles," he told the Financial Times recently.
In spite of his self-confidence, it has been a veritable baptism of fire for a man goaded by rivals in this year's election campaign for his lack of military experience. Almost half his brief tenure has been dominated by violence, first the escalation of conflict in the Gaza Strip and then the conflagration in Lebanon.
Mr Olmert won the spring election with a less than convincing showing by his new Kadima party. He had a low popularity rating among an electorate that would have preferred four more years of Mr Sharon and viewed the newcomer as a pale imitation of his ailing predecessor.
Jealous political rivals dismissed the former lawyer as arrogant, while many voters regarded him as cold and calculating. If Mr Sharon succeeded in metamorphosing into the grandfather of the nation, Mr Olmert remained the slightly wayward cousin.
Few, however, have faulted the Sharon-like vigour with which Mr Olmert has commanded the Lebanon campaign. Even members of the peace camp -- doves when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians -- embraced his policy of responding harshly once Hizbollah rockets began falling on Israel.
This national consensus has so far stood up, despite an equally prevalent bewilderment that the rockets are still falling more than three weeks on. Pollsters for the daily Ma'ariv claimed that while three out of four Israelis believed their army would win the war, barely half thought it was succeeding so far.
Faced with such a potential crisis of confidence, Mr Olmert has resisted the temptation offered by some of his colleagues to hit even harder and faster in a military campaign many world leaders have already branded as disproportionate in its intensity.
With considerable political skill, he appears to have persuaded the public that Israel will not be able to fulfil its most extravagant war aim - the complete annihilation of Hizbollah and that diplomacy as well as force will be a necessary part of ending the conflict.
That achievement has not deterred critics from lambasting Mr Olmert for two perceived gaffes since the war began.
The first related to a private agreement he made with Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, last weekend to halt temporarily Israel's air bombardments of Lebanon for two days following the civilian deaths at Qana. He neglected to inform the armed forces of the decision until hours after the deal was done.
The autocratic Mr Sharon might have got away with it. The outwardly more collegiate Mr Olmert, however, only succeeded in upsetting his generals.
Liberally interpreting the proviso that Israel reserved the right to strike at perceived threats, they continued to issue orders to bombard Lebanon from the air, albeit at a reduced level.
That, in turn, fuelled a perception among diplomats of Israel's nervous Arab neighbours that the man who was really running the country was Dan Halutz, its air force general chief-of-staff.
Mr Olmert, however, asserted that he was in charge by insisting that any significant escalation by the Israeli side must be approved in advance by the security cabinet that he chairs.
The prime minister's second alleged gaffe came midweek when he suggested to an interviewer that the war in Lebanon could provide an impetus for his Planned withdrawals from the West Bank. The remark provoked a storm among erstwhile but long-departed allies on the far right. Ten of them in the reserves threatened to defy orders to enter Lebanon unless he retracted.
He was obliged to apologise to Effi Eitam, a standard-bearer of the settler movement, for any misunderstanding, and to clarify that the war against Hizbollah had no connection to future diplomatic moves on other fronts.
The Jerusalem Post claimed aides had told him to "watch his mouth", a piece of advice his predecessor would no doubt have regarded as lÚse-majestÚ.
The temporary spat nevertheless went to the heart of the matter. Mr Olmert remains committed to the idea that disengagement from the Palestinians is vital to preserve Israel's status as a majority Jewish democracy.
The rightwingers counter that retreat is interpreted by Israel's enemies as a sign of weakness. They cite Mr Nasrullah's speech after the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000 in which he said: "Israel may own nuclear weapons and heavy weaponry, but by God, it is weaker than a spider's web."
The right, like many in the military, blame the Hizbollah leader for inspiring the Palestinian uprising that was to break out five months later.
Mr Olmert used to share similar views on the strategic importance of keeping the occupied territories. But he underwent a conversion in recent years that mirrored that of Mr Sharon. He was the closest ally of the former prime minister in promoting last year's withdrawal from Gaza, a project the right claims has only encouraged more Palestinian terror attacks.
Mr Olmert's so-called realignment plan for the West Bank was the focus of his election campaign. By now, he expected to be doing battle with the rightwing settler lobby rather than waging war against Hizbollah.
He is now faced with the challenge of ending the war in such a way as to re-establish Israeli deterrence before pursuing a plan that his political enemies say would further undermine it.


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