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That Israel no longer occupied any part of Lebanon gave Olmert's government credibility with much of the world as it responded to Hizballah's incursion, at least in the beginning. Israel's withdrawal of the last of its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip a year ago added to the store of global goodwill that Israel started out with. Plus Olmert calculated that he could count on the support, if not the applause, of President Bush, who since 9/11 has strongly backed Israel. Some Arab countries--Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan--even took the unusual step of criticizing Hizballah; their regimes also face Islamist threats and would prefer to see forces like Hamas and Hizballah (and Iran) suppressed.
Olmert's actions have followed a certain logic of Israeli politics. A weak response to the kidnappings could have given his political opponents a handy cudgel with which to pound him. Olmert was particularly vulnerable because of his lack of security credentials--in a country that often entrusts high political office to its war heroes. During his compulsory military service, Private Olmert found glory as a mere reporter for the army's radio and journal. (At age 35, seven years into his career as a member of the Knesset, he enrolled in an officer-training course, emerging as a second lieutenant and polishing his political résumé.) Not that Olmert seems fazed by his past: he is outwardly macho and even arrogant. "He is not afraid to confront anyone, to make his place in history," says an aide to a Cabinet minister.
The current struggle could well determine how kindly history treats Olmert. He has taken Israel into an unplanned war, and there is always the risk his venture could fail. "For Olmert to sustain the trust the Israeli public has in him, he is going to have to produce," says Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington who has advised six U.S. Secretaries of State. "It reminds me of the guy jumping out of a 15th-floor window, and at the 8th floor someone asks, 'How are you doing?,' and the guy says, 'So far, so good.'"
Olmert's fall is certainly steeper than he anticipated when he took the dive. The Israelis calculated that their campaign, which has included strikes on not just Hizballah targets but also Lebanese roads, bridges and runways as well as a naval blockade--plus the explicit threat of worse to come--would cow Hizballah. In addition to maintaining a militia, the group functions as a political party and has a representative in the Lebanese Cabinet. Hizballah represents the traditionally downtrodden Shi'ites of Lebanon, who live mostly in the south and the Dahiya suburb of Beirut, areas Israel has hit hard. The bombardment has driven an estimated half a million Lebanese from their homes; many will have only rubble to return to. The strikes on infrastructure are meant not only to prevent Syria and Iran from resupplying Hizballah with rockets and launchers but also to warn Lebanon that Jerusalem can set back the country's restoration even further if it chooses. Of the estimated 300 who have died so far in Lebanon, most have been civilians. For its part, Hizballah was taken aback by Israel's ferocity. In a TV interview last week, Nasrallah lamented, "Tell me about a war that was waged against a state because of two soldiers. This has never happened in history. Nor has Israel done it anytime before."