Israeli leaders face scathing report on war

Last summer's war on Hizbullah is now reaping a wave of critiques, led by the findings of the Winograd Commission.

Israel's leaders faced the first wave Monday of what is likely to be a torrent of official criticism over last summer's war with Lebanon, as a special commission laid out a plethora of military and political failures not easily tolerated in a country known for never having lost a war.

The impact of the Winograd Commission report, initial findings to be followed by a final report in July, is likely to be strongly felt both at home – as politicians use it to gauge whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can survive – and in the region, where some will view it as further proof of an Israel no longer invincible. Also, it is coming amid concern that another confrontation could easily be triggered.

Mr. Olmert failed "severely," the report states, to show good judgment. "We find the prime minister ministerially and personally responsible for the faulty decisions taken and the problems in the decision-making process.

"The prime minister had formulated his opinion without being presented with a detailed plan, and without demanding that such a plan be presented, and therefore he could not have analyzed its details and approved it," the commission found.

Olmert, upon receiving the report, said that he would "act immediately ... to correct failures and ensure that in every possible future threat facing the state of Israel, the failures and the defects that you point to will be remedied."

By the end of the war in August, launched soon after Hizbullah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, few Israelis could say it was a success. International opinion turned against Israel following so much death and destruction in Lebanon – more than 1,000 died – and 120 Israeli soldiers lost their lives. Israel found its homefront susceptible to rockets. Indeed, reservists, who went into battle unprepared and underequipped, were the most active in calling for the commission.

Among Israeli critics, some fault a snap judgment to plunge into war without studying the consequences and checking into the army's level of preparedness; others suggest that the war should have been fought more intensively, not just with airpower but with ground troops, which were sent in only in the last week of the war.

The commission faulted the army's former chief of staff, Dan Halutz, who resigned last fall in the wake of outrage among the public and the military. It also took Defense Minister Amir Peretz to task for inexperience that "impaired Israel's ability to respond well to its challenges." Mr. Peretz, already facing a fight for his seat this month as head of the Labor Party, is expected to be ousted.

The organization of bereaved families from the war has said that both Olmert and Peretz should resign. A poll taken immediately after the Winograd report's release found that 69 percent of Israelis said that Olmert should resign, while 74 percent thought Peretz should.

Decades ago, it was huge protests that propelled Israel's Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan to resign after a commission reviewed the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel was caught unprepared.

Although Olmert is deeply unpopular, other senior officials in the leading Kadima Party will be loath to try to oust him just yet. To do so, they would need to call new elections, risking their place as a ruling party. Moreover, Kadima's focus on unilateral withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory has lost support in the nearly two years since former prime minister Ariel Sharon pulled Israel's soldiers and 8,000 Jewish settlers out of Gaza.

Eyal Arad, a Kadima adviser, says it's too early to judge Olmert's longevity. "It's certainly a very tough ... report," he says, adding that, T]hey're suggesting an overall change ... vis-a-vis security.... The departure of one person or another doesn't seem to be what they're looking for."

Also working in favor of Olmert's survival are fears in the centrist Kadima Party and on the left that rightist former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would emerge as victor in an election battle.

"It's a very paradoxical situation, because on the one hand, this government, especially Olmert, doesn't have any public support – he has about 3 percent, and today it's probably even worse," says Moshe Lissak, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert in military-civilian relations. "But the coalition, in terms of the numbers, is frightened of having an election because they know it will be another revolution and they won't be in power anymore."

Olmert's coalition includes parties that account for 77 of the Knesset's 120 seats, including the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, normally a prime candidate to join forces with Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party to topple the government. But parliament members from the party said they would not rush to judgment.

Opinion polls predict that if elections were held today, Olmert's Kadima Party would win only a fraction of its 29 seats while Netanyahu would return for a second tenure as prime minister.

"Most of the public has lost confidence in the government,'' charged Gilad Erdan, a parliamentary member of the Likud Party in an interview with Israel Radio. "This government is incapable of any moves, neither rightward nor leftward.''

A key indicator of the government's short-term viability will come on Thursday, when an anti-Olmert demonstration is planned for Tel Aviv.

But some are skeptical of its impact. "I don't think it will work,'' Tvi Raviv, a member of the reservist protesters, told Israel TV. "I don't think he's the type that would [resign] even if 1,000 people stood under his window.''

In the longer term, however, the report will be another factor in hampering the government, making it even more shaky amid corruption investigations. To restore confidence, Olmert is expected to reshuffle top members of his cabinet.

Among the council's recommendations are "substantial improvement in the functioning of the National Security Council, the establishment of a national assessment team, and creating a center for crisis management in the Prime Minister's Office."

Parliamentary member Avshalom Vilan says he believes Olmert will embark on a peace initiative with the Palestinians or neighboring Arab states to boost his ratings. "If he doesn't reshuffle the government, he'll lose his public legitimacy,'' he said. "And the status quo will topple him.''

For many Arabs, the unfolding recriminations against Olmert and top Israeli military commanders reinforce the belief that Hizbullah triumphed. But, analysts say, beyond the reaction of instinctive delight at the woes of the Israeli government, there is little interest in the details of internal Israeli investigations.

Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based security consultant who served with UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon from 1979 to 2003, questioned if people would absorb the war's tactical and strategic lessons.

"Apart from Hizbullah, no one is looking at the technical aspects of the report and what that entails for the future. The reaction is all emotional," he says.

For Hizbullah, the war was another demonstration of the efficacy of armed resistance against Israel. "The model of resistance is out there and everyone is looking at it," says Nawaf Mussawi, Hizbullah's foreign-affairs adviser. "Now is the time of resistance – in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, other places."

"Hizbullah thinks the Winograd commission itself is the main proof of Israel's defeat , says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, "and it will continue to use it to refute skeptics who think Hizbullah lost."

Nicholas Blanford in Beirut and Josh Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed.

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Winograd Commission on Israel's war performance

• "Primary responsibility for these serious failings" in last summer's war against Hizbullah falls to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and outgoing chief of the military, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz.

• The war was not based on a thorough military plan and did not fully consider alternate responses.

• Though it became clear some declared goals were poorly defined and unattainable, political leaders failed to adjust plans accordingly.

• The military was "not ready for this war" and has not felt the need to update Israel's "overall security strategy."

•The government's "quality of discussions and decisionmaking" requires "urgent attention."

Source: Winograd Commission Partial Report

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