Just days after launching Israel's violent offensive in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took time off to share a leisurely weekend lunch with a few old friends. With helicopters buzzing overhead on their way to and from the front, the group sat on the patio of an elegant private home, eating tomato soup, egg noodles and steak. What struck one participant was Olmert's inner calm, the confidence he has exuded as he leads Israel through its biggest crisis in years. "You could see the intensity in his body language," says the friend. "But he was not nervous. You could see that he feels he's the right guy to deal with the situation--that he has found his way."
But the way is not at all clear. Israel's untested Prime Minister was dealt a formidable challenge two weeks ago when fighters for Hizballah, the Lebanese Islamist group, crossed the border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Olmert responded ferociously, authorizing air attacks and limited ground incursions aimed not just at punishing Hizballah but also at reshaping Israel's neighborhood. It's an enormous gamble and one that could well determine Olmert's political fate and the peace prospects of the area. If he succeeds, by neutralizing Hizballah and convincing Israel's enemies, at least for a while, that it's not worth picking a fight, Israel could win a greater sense of security, while its patron, the U.S., could point to Israel's experience as proof that standing up to militant Islamists pays off. But as the fighting escalates beyond what Olmert's government once imagined, the odds against him have grown. If the battle ends with less than a demonstrable victory for Israel--an outcome he has insisted is unsatisfactory--then Hizballah and its backers Syria and Iran would declare a moral victory just as the U.S. is trying to curtail the influence of both radical states and as American power is being tested in Iraq.
Elected Prime Minister in March in the wake of his predecessor Ariel Sharon's debilitating stroke, Olmert, 60, did not expect to define himself in this way--through the most dramatic outbreak of cross-border Arab-Israeli violence since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Voters brought him to power not as the man best equipped to fight Israel's enemies but as one explicitly committed to disengaging from Israel's foes, to walling them off by establishing borders demarcated by an imposing fence. Hizballah's incursion into Israel two weeks ago, in which eight soldiers were killed in addition to the two taken hostage, on the heels of the kidnapping of an Israeli corporal by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, reset Olmert's agenda. "If the Bush presidency was defined by 9/11, for Olmert it came a little quicker," says Daniel Seaman, director of Israel's government press office. "His political stature is being defined now." And so far, he is gaining. In a poll published at the end of last week in the newspaper Ma'ariv, 95% of those surveyed supported the government's actions in Lebanon; 78% said they were satisfied with Olmert's performance, compared with 43% before the Lebanon flare-up.