Thu Mar 8, 2007 5:16am ET

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has testified he launched last year’s war against Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon in line with a contingency plan he approved four months before.

Olmert, under fire for his handling of the inconclusive 34-day war, told a judicial inquiry last month that Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 triggered the plans for a large-scale attack in Lebanon, the Israeli newspaper said.

The inquiry, known as the Winograd Commission, is expected to publish an interim report this month. Haaretz did not say how it had learned the details of Olmert’s February 1 testimony.

Many Israelis view Olmert’s decision to go to war as a knee-jerk reaction by a leader with little security experience, unlike his predecessor, former general Ariel Sharon.

In testimony apparently aimed at dismissing any notion he acted recklessly, Olmert told the commission he asked army commanders in March 2006 if a contingency plan for military action existed in the event soldiers were abducted along the Lebanon frontier, Haaretz said.

Presented with options, Olmert chose what the newspaper described as a "moderate plan" that included air strikes accompanied by a limited ground operation.

Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz have seen their popularity slump since the conflict, in which 158 Israelis, including 117 soldiers and 41 civilians, were killed and thousands of Hezbollah rockets were fired into the Jewish state.

About 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, including an estimated 270 Hezbollah guerrillas.

Only 3 percent of Israelis would vote for Olmert if elections were held now, according to a poll released by Israel’s Channel 10 television on Wednesday. Olmert has also been dogged by political corruption scandals.

In the Lebanon war, Israel failed to achieve its declared goals of retrieving the two soldiers taken in a cross-border raid, and destroying the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group’s rocket arsenal and military capacity.

Haaretz said the United States intervened at the outset of the war to curb the strength of Israel’s response and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Israel that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government should not be undermined.

"Israel understood this to mean Lebanese infrastructure should not be destroyed, even though the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) had originally planned otherwise," Haaretz said.

Israeli bombing destroyed scores of bridges in Lebanon and devastated Hezbollah’s strongholds in the mainly Shi’ite Muslim suburbs of Beirut and in the south and east of the country.

A U.N.-backed truce halted hostilities on August 14. Since then Hezbollah guerrillas have made way for Lebanese army troops and an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force to deploy in the south. Olmert has cited the deployments as an Israeli gain in the war.