News Analysis: Grapes of Wrath may become disaster for Peres

JERUSALEM — As Operation Grapes of Wrath continued for a second week, a palpable sense of disaster began creeping through government circles in Israel.

From every point of view, the mini-war in Lebanon that had looked like a cakewalk when it was launched April 11 seemed to be turning into an embarrassing failure.

Militarily, the situation seemed to be one sustained slap in the face for one of the world's strongest and proudest armies — the Israel Defense Force.

Israel has hurled hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tons of high explosives at Hezbollah targets and at other important facilities in Lebanon since the operation was launched to put an end to the militant Islamic group's Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel.

But the fanatical Shi'ite Hezbollah fighters were nonetheless still shooting Katyushas at Kiryat Shmona and at a string of smaller Galilee communities all the way to Nahariya on the sea.

Between Monday and Tuesday alone, U.N. peacekeepers in the region counted 99 Katyushas fired at Israel.

Moreover, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said a total of more than 500 rockets have been fired since the fighting began.

There have been no Israeli fatalities, and injuries are moderate, thanks to a mass evacuation and to disciplined civil-defense procedures.

But one in every eight apartments in Kiryat Shmona has reportedly been damaged, economic life has come to an effective standstill in the Upper Galilee, and tourism throughout the country has shrunken drastically.

Six weeks before Israel's national elections, Prime Minister Shimon Peres plainly wanted a military action with few or no Israeli casualties.

Hence his decision to bombard from land, sea and air but not to send in ground forces.

Foreign Minister Ehud Barak maintains that given the requisite time, the campaign will work.

The flight of more than 400,000 Lebanese civilians northward, coupled with the bombing of strategic targets, the reasoning goes, will bring unbearable pressure on Lebanon's government.

Beirut will then pressure the Syrians, who in turn will respond to American and other diplomatic mediation efforts, rein in Hezbollah and conclude new understandings satisfactory to Israel, according to theory.

However, military and civilian observers here increasingly are voicing their disbelief in this complex scenario in the face of mounting — and embarrassing — evidence to the contrary.

The intensity of the Israeli bombing and shelling has decreased markedly since April 18, when Israel shelled a U.N. base in southern Lebanon, killing nearly 100 Lebanese refugees.

Peres, in interviews this week, disclosed that the disastrous shelling came in response to a call for artillery support from an IDF ground unit working inside southern Lebanon.

According to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, the unit's commander had believed, mistakenly as it turned out, that four of his men had been hit by Hezbollah fire.

Peres insisted that the officers involved did not know that the U.N. camp was serving as a temporary shelter for hundreds of refugees.

But the camp was shown on Israeli and international television the night before, a sad comment on the standards of Israeli military intelligence during this ill-starred operation.

Diplomatically, with foreign ministers from Russia, France and the European Union in the region this week, the competing mediation bids have made the efforts of the Clinton administration to restore peace to the region much more difficult.

Monday, Christopher was left waiting while Syrian president Hafez Assad consulted with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. The next day, when Christopher traveled back to Damascus from Jerusalem, Assad flatly refused to see him.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Tuesday that Assad had not snubbed Christopher, and that Christopher would return to Damascus this week because "it would be very difficult" to get a cease-fire agreement without him.

Assad, isolated just a month ago by the March anti-terror summit in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik, is now the newly respected focus of all the diplomatic activity.

He is plainly loving it, and sees no reason not to prolong it for as long as he can, especially because every hour longer is another hour of anguish and frustration for the Israelis.

From the standpoint of image, the disaster for Peres personally has perhaps been the most brutal.

The Nobel Peace laureate, ostensibly leading his nation toward a new Middle East, finds himself suddenly excoriated around the world as a warmonger whose overreaction to a terrorist problem has resulted in the deaths of scores of innocent women and children.

Foes have reared their heads anew; friends hang their heads in disbelief.

The Clinton administration is the last, though the most vital, bastion of support for the beleaguered Israeli prime minister.

But even Clinton cannot relish the prospect of a scheduled Peres visit to Washington, D.C., this weekend if the bloody bombardment of Lebanon has not ceased.

King Hussein of Jordan has already made it clear that he will not join Peres at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual convention — and his is the most moderate of the reactions from the Arab world.

A Jordanian Embassy official in Washington dismissed rumors that the fighting in Lebanon influenced the king's decision not to attend the AIPAC conference. A decision was made earlier and Crown Prince Hassan will likely speak via satellite.

Politically, all this will most likely have an adverse effect on the prime minister's election campaign.

Polls taken before the Kana shelling showed that Peres still led Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu by a narrow margin of some 4 to 5 percentage points.

Political commentators had felt that large sections of the Israeli public were withholding their verdict pending the outcome of the Lebanon campaign.

But now, given the hammering Israel's image has taken, a convincing victory for Peres seems less and less likely.

That may be the reason supporters of the government's peace policies who are concerned about the course of events in Lebanon are not protesting, for fear of undermining Peres' election prospects.

On the right, Peres' tough response after the Kana disaster was praised.

But those who praised it are likely to be Netanyahu supporters anyway.

To the left, meanwhile, Peres is beset by threats of a massive defection by Israeli Arab voters, who were previously expected to support him.

After the Kana shelling, leaders of Israel's Arab community were openly calling on their followers to abstain rather than vote for Peres on May 29.

Some Israeli Arab spokesmen were even telling reporters that perhaps Netanyahu would be better than Peres.

Labor Party officials say they are confident that the Arab vote will "come back" to Peres once the Lebanon campaign ends and the prime minister finds the time to explain himself to Israel's Arab community.

Meanwhile, Peres this week reiterated an earlier accusation that Iran is actively seeking to depose him and thereby kill the peace process.

This, he said, explained the wave of Hamas suicide bombings in late February and early March, and also the upsurge of Hezbollah attacks that began simultaneously with the conference at Sharm el-Sheik.

When Peres first articulated this theory in early April, the Likud charged him with fantasizing for electoral purposes.

It now remains to be seen whether, in light of the ongoing violence in Lebanon, Peres' "Iranian plot" theory will convince the Israeli electorate to keep him in power.