Lebanon war was a success: Olmert

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert toured the country’s northern border with Lebanon on Thursday to mark the one-year anniversary of the war against Hezbollah guerrillas.

During his tour, Olmert acknowledged last summer’s 34-day war exposed problems in Israel’s military capabilities and said his government was fixing ”weaknesses” revealed by the fighting.

Still, flouting the popular perception that the war was a failure, he said Israel is better off today than it was at the outset of hostilities on July 12, 2006.

”We had great achievements in this war,” Olmert said near a road that was hit by one of the nearly 4,000 rockets that Hezbollah fired into Israel last summer. ”We also had not a few weaknesses and failures that we are trying to deal with to fix, to deploy, to renovate and to strengthen.”

Olmert’s tour included an army outpost on the border and a school that had been hit by a rocket.

Last year, the fighting had erupted when Syrian-backed Hezbollah militants attacked Israeli soldiers in a border patrol, killing three and capturing two others.

In retaliation, Israel launched a military campaign in southern Lebanon that killed more than 1,000 Lebanese, most of them civilians and caused heavy damage.

In the fighting, 158 Israelis, including 119 soldiers, were killed.

A year later, many Israelis believe the war was a failure since the army failed to meet its two main objectives: crushing Hezbollah and bringing the two captured soldiers home.

Both are believed to have been badly wounded, but Hezbollah has given no details on their conditions or proof they are alive.

Secret negotiations for a prisoner swap have not yielded results.

Meanwhile, UN Mideast envoy Michael Williams said on Thursday that the United Nations has held ”many, many meetings” with Hezbollah representatives, but that no progress has been made.

”It causes me pain to report to you that those negotiations have not so far met with success,” he told Israel Radio, calling on Hezbollah to give an indication on the conditions of the men.

Unpopular Olmert

Olmert has repeatedly claimed the war was a success, noting the heavy damage inflicted on Hezbollah and the presence of a massive UN peacekeeping force policing Lebanon’s southern border.

However, he remains deeply unpopular with the Israeli public.

In April, a government commission looking into the war found a ”severe failure” in Olmert’s handling of the war, saying he hastily went to war without a comprehensive plan and exercised poor judgment.

Israel’s wartime military chief and defense minister have already lost their jobs in the wake of heavy public criticism, and the final conclusions of the government commission, expected in the coming weeks, could put pressure on Olmert to resign.

Talks with Syria

During his northern tour, Olmert said he would like to renew peace talks with Syria.

Israeli military officials have reported increased Syrian troop movements on the other side of the border in recent months, warning that hostilities could erupt into war.

”We really hope that the conditions will be ripe to allow for the establishment of negotiations with Syria and we don’t intend and don’t want to bring about any friction with Syrians.”

”We don’t have any interest in fighting the Syrians and we hope that they don’t have any interest in fighting us,” Olmert said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad also has called for the reopening of peace talks with Israel, but Olmert had rebuffed the offer as a Syrian attempt to win favor with the US.

He has said Syria should first scale back its close ties with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other anti-Israeli groups.

The last talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the scope of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that it captured from Syria in 1967.

Olmert has signaled he is prepared to give up the Golan under a peace agreement.