War drill fails to reassure Israelis

Yellow smoke billowed in the schoolyard, and emergency personnel scrambled to contain the mock chemical attack.

The two-day nationwide drill that began Tuesday was more than just an exercise in rescue response to possible chemical attacks or Iranian missile strikes.

Israel's largest-ever such drill was meant to signal to the public that the government and safety services had learned the lessons of this summer's war with Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.

Government services in parts of northern Israel collapsed during the monthlong war when nearly 4,000 rockets fired by Hizbullah guerrillas sent hundreds of thousands of people scurrying to bomb shelters.

Israel's performance in the war triggered harsh criticism of the leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, which has since been besieged by a variety of scandals that have brought confidence in public officials to an all-time low.

"We're used to attacks, but people question whether this will be the same in real time. Of course not," says Sima Abadi, who watched with her mother-in-law and two daughters in strollers. "People don't have any faith in the police or the army anymore.''

Dubbed "Turning Point," the $500,000 exercise included 5,000 policemen and was supposed to test coordination among teams of soldiers, firefighters, ambulance teams, government offices, and hospitals. But the exceptionally dark exercise, complete with sirens and actors playing screaming children and wounded with missing limbs, did little to restore the faith of a nation brooding over the seeming rot penetrating all areas of public life.

Although the mass dress rehearsal was months in the making, it comes just two weeks after the army had to petition the Supreme Court to quash publication of a state comptroller's report that is believed to be blistering in its criticism of the military's National Guard-like Homefront Command.

And as government investigators put the final touches on reports of the widespread bungling of the conflict with Hizbullah, a salvo of corruption scandals has put Israel's top politicians under fire.

Since the beginning of the year, both Israel's army chief of staff and a police commissioner were forced to step down. And on Wednesday, Israel's labor foundation shut down airports, mail services, and garbage collection in a general strike to protest the failure of the government to pay the salaries of hundreds of municipal employees.

The corruption scandals have tainted President Moshe Katsav, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and former Justice Minister Haim Ramon. Most recently, embezzlement charges have been brought against Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson.

Never before has the disillusionment been so comprehensive, analysts say.

Public radio newscasters quote surveys that say only 5 percent of Israelis are satisfied with the political system. Newspapers are filled with predictions of Olmert's resignation after a state inquiry is made public in another month.

"Olmert-led Israel is in utter disarray. There is no policy, no responsibility, and no decision-making,'' wrote journalist and commentator Ari Shavit in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

"The home front is not prepared for another war. The Israel Defense Forces are not prepared for another war. No official authority has been established to deal with another war. There is no diplomatic initiative that could prevent the next war."

The gloom could prompt reservist absenteeism and even prompt young Israelis to look to immigrate, says Michael Oren, senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

The cynicism has even filtered down to Israeli adolescents. As the drill wound down, and firefighters grouped together for souvenir snapshots, 14-year-old Yaron Nadin wandered amid the rescue workers and declared the fire trucks, ambulances, and actors "one big show."

While police were linking arms to hold back actors posing as hysterical parents, he slipped under the police tape. "Do you know the word for 'shoddy' in Hebrew?"

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