By Luke Baker
JERUSALEM, Jan 18 (Reuters) - The blown-up pictures on the front page of Israel’s two most widely read newspapers said it all, at least from Israel’s point of view.
Israeli combat troops standing aloft on their vast Merkava tank, smiling wearily as they raised their arms in victory, one of them waving the Israeli flag above his head.
"Olmert: we’ve achieved what we wanted", read the headline in Yediot Ahronoth, and in Maariv, below a banner headline announcing "Ceasefire", was the declaration: "The Victory".
Israel’s unilateral announcement of a truce after 22 days of fighting in Gaza certainly received the front-page treatment Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defence and foreign ministers would have wanted three weeks before a parliamentary election.
But behind the headlines there were doubts about the durability of Israel’s achievements and concerns that the war, however justifiable in Israeli eyes, may end up perpetuating the crisis with Hamas in Gaza rather than bringing it to an end.
And while at home in Israel many might be pleased to see the army in the pose of victory — especially after the lack of a clear win in the 2006 Lebanon conflict — a deep disconnect remains between domestic opinion and the reaction in the outside world, from where the war was watched with deepening alarm.
During the fighting, Israel’s media were resoundingly behind the offensive, with even left-wing commentators seeing the justification for launching an assault given Hamas’s firing of around 8,000 rockets and mortar bombs into Israel since 2001.
But with Hamas still in de facto control of the Gaza Strip and the international focus on the suffering of its beleaguered inhabitants, it was time for those who backed the campaign in principle to question whether the desired outcome had been achieved.
"This war was a just war. There is nothing more just than defending yourself. But this was not a wise war," wrote Eyal Megged, a commentator in Ma’ariv, a right-of-centre tabloid.
"This war presumed to change the situation. This was stated explicitly. But the situation, regrettably, will change only for the worse. We will wake up on the morning after the war to a situation filled with hatred, a poisoned situation."
POLITICS AND PAIN
In Yediot Ahronoth, one commentator put the conflict — which left more than 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead and drew accusations from senior U.N. officials that Israel may have committed war crimes — firmly in an electoral context.
Olmert isn’t standing in the Feb. 10 election, but both Defence Minister Ehud Barak of centre-left Labour and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the ruling centrist Kadima party are, and hope to replace him as prime minister.
For that reason, the conflict has had a distinct electoral tinge.
"The ceasefire hasn’t yet been implemented on the ground, but the national consensus that reigned in Israel for the past four weeks died last night," wrote Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading commentators, saying the electoral gloves were now off.
As for the war itself, he wrote: "It seems that the operation should have been ended two or three days after the ground invasion. That was the position maintained by Barak and Livni." It was Olmert, he said, who wanted to continue it.
Outside of Israel, almost daily protests against the war have been held in London, Paris, Rome and elsewhere across Europe and the Middle East. Pictures of death and destruction in Gaza, and the casualty reports — more than 400 children among the 700 civilians killed — have provoked outrage.
In Israel, that outrage has either not been widely aired in the media, or has been dismissed as a lack of understanding of what Israel is going through. Suggestions of war crimes have been dismissed out of hand by Israeli government officials.
But the killing by Israeli shelling of three daughters of a Palestinian doctor, whose reports from Gaza were a fixture on Israeli TV during the conflict, has led some commentators to start asking if there were excesses, even if the bulk of the nation feels that whatever was done was justified.
"This picture, a bereaved and brokenhearted Palestinian father, three dead girls... for me, this was the picture of defeat of this war," wrote Boaz Gaon in Ma’ariv, referring to the doctor, Abu el-Ayash.
(Editing by Peter Millership)