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Israeli Politicians Begin the Blame Game

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

To the Middle East now, where the cease-fire that took effect this morning seems to be holding. There have been a few clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerillas, but the major fighting has stopped. The roads into southern Lebanon were clogged today with Lebanese refugees, trying to return home to their villages.

The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nashrallah, went on television and said that his forces had achieved a strategic, historic victory. He also said that now is not the time to talk about disarming Hezbollah forces.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In northern Israel, life began to return to normal as some people left their bomb shelters and went out on the streets again. Others are being warned to stay in their bunkers. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to fend off criticism of his handling of the war.

Polls show support for Olmert has plummeted in the months since the fighting began, and as NPR's Linda Gradstein reports, some Israeli politicians are calling for an inquiry into what went wrong.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Just hours after the cease-fire took effect, Ehud Olmert was trying to prove to the Israeli public that it had all been worth it. In his first speech to Parliament since the beginning of the war, Olmert insisted that Hezbollah today is far worse off than it was a month ago.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): (Through translator) The Israeli army has hurt this murderous organization and its military infrastructure in ways that have not yet been made public. Israel has hit its long-range missiles, its huge weapons source and the self-confidence of its leaders and members.

GRADSTEIN: Olmert said the war brought about a change in the strategic balance in the region, and said Israel will continue to pursue Hezbollah. He also said the government of Lebanon has agreed to take responsibility for the southern part of the country, which was a major Israeli goal.

Olmert acknowledged what he called shortcomings in the way the war was fought, and said Israel will review the war for lessons that might be learned.

As often happens in the Knesset, the prime minister was repeatedly heckled and three Parliamentarians were ejected for disturbing the session. Then it was opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu's turn. Until today, Netanyahu had not criticized Olmert or the way the war was going. But today, the gloves came off.

Mr. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israeli Parliament): (Through translator) It must be said honestly. There were many failures - failures 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. Without doubt, we shall need later to learn these lessons and fix the mistakes.

GRADSTEIN: Several Knesset members, including General Effi Eitam, a former head of Northern Command and a member of the hard-line National Union Party, said Olmert had failed to achieve what he promised.

General EFFI EITAM (Israeli Parliament): Hezbollah haven't been disarmed, hostages didn't come back and the rockets capability - the capability of rockets launching haven't been destroyed yet.

GRADSTEIN: Eitam said another round of fighting is inevitable, and the cease-fire will only give Hezbollah time to rearm. He called for a commission of inquiry to investigate what went wrong.

Criticism of the prime minister also came from the other end of the political spectrum. Zahava Gal-On, one of the three Knesset members who was ejected from the plenum today for interrupting Olmert, said later that Israel should have stopped its attacks weeks ago, and she called on the prime minister to step down.

Ms. ZAHAVA GAL-ON (Israeli Parliament): I think he should resign, he, together with the Minister of Defense. They promised to bring back, you know, the soldiers, the hostages, they promised to strike against the Hezbollah. Nothing happened, nothing happened.

GRADSTEIN: A poll published on the YNet Web site today found that 58 percent of Israelis believe Israel has achieved none or only a small part of its goals in the war. Gil Hoffman, the diplomatic reporters for the Jerusalem Post newspaper, says Olmert is in for more attacks.

Mr. GIL HOFFMAN (Jerusalem Post): You know, we just finished a period of time in Israel in which the people of Israel were very unified behind the idea of soldiers and the war and were not criticizing the prime minister. That period is over now. The politicians, meanwhile, were writing down all the criticism that they had to say and they weren't say out loud, and now it's all going to start coming out.

GRADSTEIN: At the same time, Hoffman said, Olmert's governing coalition is relatively stable, and it is unlikely that the opposition will be able to bring down the government now and call for new elections.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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