Winograd Report revives Israeli anger over Lebanon war

Many families of Israeli victims in the 2006 conflict now plan to call for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's resignation.

Ilene R. Prusher
A report that hits home: Rachel and Yehoshua Meshulami have been critical of how the Israeli military handled the 2006 Lebanon war. A picture of their son, Amasa, killed in the war, hangs on their kitchen wall.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Members of the Winograd Commission in Jerusalem on Wednesday presented the panel’s final report on the 2006 Lebanon war. The government-appointed group found “grave failings” in how politicians and military leaders handled the conflict with Hizbullah.

For the past year and a half, Yehoshua Meshulami has been going over the details of how his son's tank unit was sent into a Lebanese village in the last two days of war in July 2006.

As he sees it, the unit was sent in carelessly, underprepared and underinformed about the size and scope of the Hizbullah guerrilla forces that awaited them in ambush.

Mr. Meshulami's son, Amasa, never came home again, leaving behind a pregnant wife.

Now, as Israelis try to decipher the findings of the final report of the Winograd Commission, which was released Wednesday amid great anticipation and harsh winter weather, families like the Meshulamis are in the eye of the storm.

Many bereaved families have joined together in their grief and are spearheading a movement to try to get Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take personal responsibility for the war's failures and resign.

The ensuing political maelstrom means that ears are bent toward the voices of people who were affected most by Israel's losses during the war, which included 119 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians; more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and combatants died.

But eyes are also turned to leading politicians in Mr. Olmert's own cabinet, foremost among them Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader and a former prime minister. Mr. Barak has said in the past that if Olmert came out looking reprehensible in the final Winograd Report, he would force Israel to hold early elections to drive Olmert from office.

In its second and final report on the Israel establishment's behavior in the war, the state-appointed Winograd Commission said it discovered "grave failings" in Israel's most senior institutions.

"We found grave failings in the decisionmaking ... both on the military and political levels," said inquiry chairman Eliahu Winograd, a retired judge, as he presented the report's main findings. He was particularly pointed in his criticism of the conduct of the ground war in the last few days of the conflict, in which Israel lost many soldiers for questionable gains.

"The ground operations at the end of the war did not bring any clear achievements ... or stop the launching of Katyusha rockets," Mr. Winograd said. "After the decision for a ceasefire there was no intelligent discussion on how to stop the ground war."

But the judge, the head of a five-member panel appointed amid great public disappointment over the war, stopped short of putting blame on any one individual – Olmert included. He suggested that a decision about what to do with the findings lay in the public realm.

Others, however, have been quick to reach their own conclusions, insisting that every time the report mentions a failure of politics or policy, it points in Olmert's direction.

The Likud Party, which is headed by rightist leader Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement that Olmert should resign because the report outlines "grave failings" at the political level, meaning Olmert. Eitan Cabel, chairman of the Labor party, also said that he believes that the report indicates that Olmert should take personal responsibility for the war's failings, and resign.

The partial report released by the Winograd Commission in April 2007 is viewed as having been far less forgiving of Olmert, indicating that the prime minister displayed poor decision-making skills and lack of judgment.

During the war, on the night before Amasa's fatal fight, in which Hizbullah combatants blew up his tank, he called his father. As a newlywed and expectant father, he could have been excused. As an idealistic combat soldier, he felt that would be wrong.

"He was asking for my blessing. He asked me, is it right to go to this battle?" recalls Meshulami, as his wife fries mushroom patties in a skillet for dinner, with the rain beating at the windows of their trailer home.

"I told him, it's not your job to decide," says Meshulami. He now feels he sent his son to rely on senior army commanders who weren't as cautious and professional as they should have been about sending the troops into a "killing field," he says.

"My job is to bring up my son and strengthen him. Did they not do their homework?" he asks, throwing up his hands. "It was childishness to send our sons into an area which was so dangerous, and which they didn't know enough about. They didn't have the backup forces they needed. We hope that at least this sacrifice will bring the change we need. We want the [Israel Defense Forces] to take full responsibility and move forward."

The Meshulamis are no fans of Olmert or his Kadima Party, which was set up by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as part of his decision to withdraw from Gaza in August 2005.

After being moved out of the Gaza settlement of Netzarim, they moved as a group inside Israel, to a place called Yivul, somewhere near the Gaza border. Meshulami, a chicken farmer, says the community there wasn't zoned for chicken coops, and so three months ago, they decided to move here – an illegal settlement outpost.

But Meshulami says he isn't looking for "revenge," and that he's not sure that Olmert is the one most at fault for what many Israelis consider to be a devastating war.

"A prime minister would be informed of what's going on in the army and whether to go to war or not, but the job of whether to go into battle in this village or that, that's not his job," Meshulami says. "The people who made the real mistakes are the professional army people."

That sentiment, in fact, may be what saves Olmert's political career from yet another beating from the Winograd Commission following its initial, interim findings last April.

Many analysts say that although many Israelis have a sense of malaise with Olmert, the blame for the war is spread more widely than just at the political level. Moreover, other senior military officials, such as the IDF chief of staff, Dan Halutz, have already resigned.

"I'm sure Olmert cannot remain clean after this final report, but the question is whether we will see a critical mass of opposition that can remove him, and I'm doubtful of it," says Yagil Levy, a sociologist who focuses on military-civilian affairs at Ben Gurion University in the Negev.

Professor Levy says that the right wing and most settlers will try to leverage the Winograd Report as a way to get Olmert to resign, but that it won't be enough to force a change. "I'm not sure that this is enough in this political situation."

One of the wild cards, however, is how influential the bereaved families will be in the aftermath of the report.

"They want to see Olmert resign regardless of what the report says," Levy adds. Many of the families plan to hold a demonstration outside of Barak's home in Tel Aviv, calling on the Labor leader to keep his promise to oust Olmert.

"I think Olmert should leave office, and not because he needs to take all the blame, but to show the people in Israel that when you make mistakes, you need to pay the price," says Tal Sheinbroom, who fought in the war, during which he lost his only sibling, Staff Sgt. Yaniv. Both brothers were paratroopers, with Tal following in his brother's footsteps.

"But I don't think Olmert will resign, even if the committee says he should, but they won't say it," he adds. "And so today is not so different than any other day. The families that lost their sons in the war have days like this the whole year. I thought about my brother and tomorrow I'll think about him, too, and I don't need any committee to remind me of what happened."

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