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Olmert tries to defuse public anger over war

Israeli premier rules out peace talks with Syria

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried to defuse growing public anger yesterday over his handling of the war against Hezbollah, promising to rebuild rocket-scarred border areas but rejecting peace talks with Syria, a key supporter of the Lebanese guerrillas.

With efforts to recruit troops for an international peacekeeping force facing resistance from Europe, the week-old truce appeared increasingly fragile.

The Israeli army, which is waiting for the UN force to arrive before fully withdrawing from southern Lebanon, said its soldiers shot two Hezbollah guerrillas who approached in a ``threatening manner" late yesterday. A Hezbollah official called the report ``untrue and entirely baseless."

Although Italy offered yesterday to command the enhanced international force, many European countries apparently are hesitant to commit troops because of questions about whether they will be called on to disarm Hezbollah fighters, who have largely melted back into the civilian population.

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh have offered front-line troops but Israel does not want them because those Muslim nations have not recognized the Jewish state.

Since the UN-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. Yesterday, hundreds of reservists signed a petition calling for an official inquiry, some marching outside Olmert's office to demand his resignation.

Olmert's coalition government, headed by his centrist Kadima party and the moderate Labor party, is in no immediate danger of collapse. It could be brought down only by the Knesset, Israel's parliament, 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. He said none of the parties in the ruling coalition are eager to hold new elections, and there is no leader in Kadima with the clout to replace him.

The war, launched in response to a Hezbollah raid in which two soldiers were captured and three killed, initially enjoyed broad public support that withered 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.

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.

``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. Brigadier General Yossi Hyman, the outgoing head of infantry, said this week that ``we all feel a certain sense of failure."

Olmert has said he is ready for an investigation, but did not say what kind. An independent commission could call for the resignation of government and military officials.

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

The Defense Ministry has established a team to look into the war, but the panel 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."

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.

The three main US allies in the Arab world -- Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- have been pushing for a revival of negotiations between Israel and Syria because they are worried the Lebanon war has given a boost to Iran, an ally of Syria.

In other developments:

Nearly all of the 180,000 Lebanese refugees in Syria returned by Sunday, leaving 2,500 to 5,000 refugees there, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Jack Redden.

Lebanon needs about $3.5 billion to repair buildings and infrastructure damaged during the war, and the rebuilding effort was being hampered by lack of government leadership, the Lebanese official in charge of reconstruction, Fadel al-Shalaq, told CNN.

Israel handed over to UN peacekeepers five Lebanese men captured in an Israeli commando raid on Aug. 1 in Baalbek. At least 16 Lebanese people were killed in the raid on what authorities said was in Iranian-built hospital. Israel said it was a Hezbollah base.

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