Israeli unease grows over conduct of war

A majority want a commission of inquiry into its leadership.

Soon after Israel's war with Hizbullah came to a halt with a tenuous cease-fire, Israel's internal war began.

Now, amid widespread disappointment over how the war was waged, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under pressure to set up a state commission of inquiry on various aspects of a war in which Israelis see innumerable mishaps.

Sixty-four percent of Israelis, according to an Israeli Radio poll released Thursday, want an independent inquiry into the war – not unlike the 9/11 Commission in Washington. Such high figures serve an embarrassing blow to Mr. Olmert, who has tried to downsize the issue by appointing two lower-level committees Monday to investigate the handling of the war.

The possibility of a wider probe evinces the degree of disillusionment with the war, but also the extent to which Israelis are now willing to put the decisions of a sitting government and even the country's near-omnipotent military under a critical microscope.

Internal critique over the war appears to be making its impact on both sides of the border: Olmert has acknowledged that there were shortcomings, while Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview this week that had he known how Israel would retaliate, he would not have ordered the kidnapping attack.

Commissions of inquiry have only been held at grave moments in Israeli history, such as the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"The public impact of a commission of inquiry is much greater than any other. The public confidence in officials who direct a commission of inquiry is huge," says Prof. Stuart Cohen, a political scientist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv.

"They also have judicial powers which no internal committee possesses," he explains, meaning that the commission has the power to hold officials personally responsible for civil or criminal offenses, order them dismissed from their positions, and ban them from holding similar positions in the future.

The crux of the controversy focuses on how the war was conducted, and not whether it should have been waged at all. But even those questions have the potential to sway policy, and an inquiry could have a lasting impact on the military options Israel exercises in the future.

Israelis also want an investigation into the government shortcomings in protecting civilians during the war. Volunteer organizations and not government officials, critics say, did most of the aid work. A decision to evacuate bombarded northern towns did not come until a month into the war.

"The rights and wrongs are not the issue – nobody here disputes the justice of the use of force," says Dr. Cohen. Israel began bombing Lebanon soon after Hizbullah staged a cross-border attack on July 12, killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two. The men are still being held.

"People are upset but they're not saying, 'My son died for no reason.' He died because somebody made a mistake," he adds. "The mistake was not to have gone to war, but not to have conducted the war properly."

Much of the criticism over the war focuses on tactics, strategy, and logistics. Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and military Chief of Staff Dan Halutz decided to go war in Lebanon within a day of the kidnapping raid, a decision some see as a poor one that left no time for planning or considering a variety of options.

Older reservists, many of whom did not have up-to-date training over the past few years, say they were sent into battle unprepared. Some lacked flack jackets and helmets. Once in Lebanon, according to various media reports, they were running out of ammunition, food, and even water. In the last weekend of the 34-day war, Mr. Halutz ordered a ground offensive that some here view as too little, too late.

Indeed, much of the criticism surrounds Halutz. Military commentators have seized on the fact that he is a pilot who was the first chief of staff lacking experience with deploying ground forces, and tried to run a war against Hizbullah guerrillas by attacking Lebanon from the air.

Halutz is scheduled to meet with a conference of some 100 Israeli reserve generals next week, who are expected to ask that he step aside, according to reports in all of Israel's major newspapers.

If the Israeli Defense Forces' top man does take a fall for the war's shortcomings, it might take some of the heat off of Olmert. Neither he nor Defense Minister Peretz, who had been an union leader, had strong military backgrounds, which have usually been an unwritten requirement for both the premier and defense minister positions. Still, Olmert has already declared his opposition to a state commission of inquiry, which could work against him if the pressure to form one mounts.

Ever since Israel's first postwar commission of inquiry, in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War, politicians and military officials have often found themselves liable to be brought to task for their actions.

The Agranat Commission investigated the military following heavy losses of soldiers in the war and recommended that the chief of staff should be dismissed. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister Golda Meir both eventually resigned.

After Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Kahan Commission found then-defense minister Ariel Sharon personally responsible for indirectly causing the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla Refugee Camps.

Internal crisis have also led to commissions of inquiry. In one of the most recent, the Orr Commission was set up to investigate the killing of 13 Israeli-Arab citizens during a demonstration at the start of the intifada, in October 2000.

"The Orr Commission was extremely important, just trying to get it on behalf of the grieving families, and the impression the public had then, just as now, was that the officials wanted to whitewash it," says Julie Gal, an Israeli-American filmmaker who directed and produced the recently released documentary on the subject, "October's Cry."

Although many proponents felt that the commission wasn't effective enough in assigning personal responsibility for the deaths, it did have an impact. The minister of internal affairs at the time was banned from ever serving again in the post and several senior police officers were demoted.

"That's why we want an official commission now. It has legal aspects and it can investigate much further," Ms. Gal says. "The argument that they're citing is that a commission will paralyze everything, that we're in for a war again very soon, we need to replenish the troops, and it will take away from that." But that should not be used as an excuse, she notes. "Otherwise, " she says, "There's a sense that the government is really not accountable."

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