Israeli PM Attempts to Diffuse Public Anger Over Lebanon War

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday tried to defuse growing public anger over his handling of the war against Hezbollah, promising to rebuild rocket-scarred border areas and saying his predecessors failed to prepare for the growing threat of the Lebanese guerrilla group.

With Israeli troops in southern Lebanon awaiting the arrival of international peacekeepers, soldiers shot two Hezbollah guerrillas who approached the force in a "threatening manner" late Monday, the army said.

There was no word on the guerrillas' condition, but the incident underscored the fragility of a week-old truce.

Since the U.N.-brokered cease-fire took effect, ending 34 days of war, the Israeli public's frustration with the performance of the government and the military has grown steadily.

The outrage showed no signs of relenting Monday, with hundreds of reservists calling for an official inquiry, some marching outside Olmert's office to demand his resignation.

The war, launched in response to a Hezbollah raid in which two soldiers were killed and eight killed, initially enjoyed broad public support, but criticism grew as the fighting dragged on and the Israeli death toll grew. Critics said Israel's political and military leaders were indecisive, set unrealistic goals and settled for an insufficient truce.

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The harshest criticism has come from reserve soldiers, who form an integral part of the military. Reservists returning from Lebanon complained about poor command and a lack of food, water and equipment.

Several dozen reservists marched about 10 miles into Jerusalem on Monday, gathered at a park opposite Olmert's office and demanded his resignation and that of defense minister, Amir Peretz. They carried Israeli flags and banners calling for an investigation.

"I'm telling Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz to look me in the eye and tell me they are fit to hold their posts," Sgt. Maj. Lior Vilnes, one of the protesters, told Channel Two television.

Hundreds of other reservists circulated a petition calling for an official inquiry into the handling of the war, while bereaved parents added their voices..

"No goal was achieved ... Nothing was done in this war," Roni Elmakyes, whose son Omri was killed in the fighting, told Israel Radio.

Even the army's leadership began to show signs of dissent. Brig. Gen. Yossi Human, the outgoing head of infantry, said "we all feel a certain sense of failure" during a farewell ceremony this week.

Olmert has said he is ready for an investigation, but did not specify what kind. An official inquiry would have the power to call for the resignation of government and military officials.

During a tour of the north Monday, Olmert appeared cool toward a state inquiry, saying the second-guessing would undermine the army. "I won't play this game, the game of beating ourselves up," he said.

Peretz has already established a team to look into the war, but his committee of retired generals has been derided as toothless.

Olmert's tour stops included Kiryat Shemona, one of the hardest-hit border towns, and the Arab village of Maghar, which also came under Hezbollah rocket fire during the fighting.

Facing local officials, Olmert pledged speedy reconstruction and defended his government's performance. He also appeared to pin some of the blame on his predecessors, saying his government had been in power for just two months when the war broke out.

"We knew for years that there was a great danger, but for some reason, we didn't translate that understanding into action, like we just did," he said. "We knew what Iran was doing, what Syria was doing, arming Hezbollah. We acted as if we didn't know."

He did not mention the name of the ailing Ariel Sharon, his political mentor, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, or nearly the entire period after Israel's troop withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

Olmert also rejected a proposal by some members of his Cabinet to resume peace talks with Syria, a key Hezbollah supporter. He said talks could resume only if Syria stops supporting militant groups.

"Syria is a committed, aggressive member of the axis of evil, which starts in Iran," Olmert said. "Before we negotiate with (President) Bashar Assad, let him stop launching missiles, by means of Hezbollah, onto the heads of innocent Israelis."

Olmert's government, a coalition headed by his centrist Kadima Party and the moderate Labor Party, is in no immediate danger of collapse. It could only be brought down by parliament which is in recess until October, and it is not clear whether the public storm will last until then.

"I think Olmert will simply allow the anger to pass and get on with his business," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, adding that none of the parties in the ruling coalition are eager to hold new elections, and there is no leader in Olmert's centrist Kadima party with the clout to replace him.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, Israeli troops fired on a Hezbollah squad late Monday in the southern village of Shama. The army said it shot two of three guerrillas mving toward soldiers. There was no immediate reaction from Hezbollah or Lebanon.

Earlier, Israeli warplanes flew over two Lebanese cities, including the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek. Lebanon considers overflights a violation of the truce.

The latest shooting came as U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen met Israeli officials for talks aimed at making the truce stick. Larsen, who arrived after two days of meetings in Beirut, said both sides were keen to preserve the cease-fire.

"I think it's fair to say that we have been met with very constructive attitudes and suggestions from all parties we've been speaking to so far," he said.

Under the truce, a 2,000-strong U.N. force in southern Lebanon is to be increased to 15,000 troops who will, with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers, deploy across the south as Israeli troops withdraw.

Israel and Lebanon have urged the United Nations to deploy the peacekeepers quickly, and many see their presence as the best hope to keep the two sides apart, but the expanded force has been slow to materialize and few countries have offered troops.

In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush urged the world to move quickly in deploying the force. "The need is urgent," he said.

The reluctance of Europeans to commit substantial numbers of troops has raised doubts about whether the truce can hold. European Union diplomats were to meet Wednesday to consider the number of troops the 25 EU nations will contribute, EU officials in Brussels said.

Many nations are apparently hesitant due to questions about whether the force will be called on to disarm Hezbollah fighters, who have largely melted back into the civilian population in the south.

At the United Nations, the U.S. is planning to introduce a new resolution on disarming Hezbollah, but U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Monday this should not hold up the quick deployment of U.N. peacekeepers.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Jack Redden said nearly all of the 180,000 Lebanese who took refuge in Syria during the war had returned by Sunday, leaving only 2,500 to 5,000 refugees there.

Israel handed over to U.N. peacekeepers five Lebanese men who were captured during an Israeli commando raid on Aug. 1 in Baalbek. At least 16 Lebanese were killed in the raid on what authorities in the Bekaa Valley city said was in Iranian-built hospital. Israel said the building was a Hezbollah base.