As commission excoriates war leaders, Israel ponders whats next

tel aviv | With “failure” now officially stamped on Ehud Olmert’s management of last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the question for Israel is: what next?

Following the release of the Winograd Commission’s interim report on Monday, April 29, Olmert acknowledged that “serious mistakes were made, mainly by me,” during the war. Nevertheless, he said he would not resign.

He reiterated his stance at a news conference. “This is a serious and difficult report,” the prime minister said. “There were mistakes by the decision-makers. We need to start to fix the shortcomings. There’s much to be done. The presentation of the report opens a new chapter of fixing mistakes and learning lessons.”

At the same time, he reflected that the current political crisis might force him out of office. In a televised report on Tuesday, May 1, Olmert is quoted as having told his associates, “I am not convinced that I will succeed in getting through this.” He added that if he had to go, there would be no coalition left to any of his successors.

Some officials weren’t waiting to signal their dissatisfaction with Olmert’s position. Eitan Cabel, a minister without portfolio from the Labor Party, announced Tuesday, May 1 that he was quitting in protest over Olmert’s decision to stay. “I cannot sit in a government headed by Ehud Olmert,” he said.

On the opposite side, three partners of Olmert’s Kadima Party —Labor, Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu —endorsed the prime minister’s decision not to step down.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters on Wednesday, May 2 that she would not resign from her post, ending speculation she was on her way out of Olmert’s teetering coalition government, and telling reporters that she supported Olmert’s June 12th decision to go to war against Hezbollah.

The Israeli public, deeply critical and hungry for blame, may stop short of ousting the unpopular prime minister because of a lack of alternatives. They also may be reluctant to act since the commission found fault with the government and military leadership as a whole, not just Olmert.

A May 2 poll by an Israeli news channel found that 9% of Israelis think Olmert should resign immediately. Only 33 percent thought Olmert should not resign.

“It will also depend on the cohesion of Kadima and the government, and the scope and nature of the public reaction, including in the media and rallies,” said Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University. “What we have is a very big drama but not a real earthquake yet.”

When asked how President Bush regarded the Winograd Commission report, White House spokesman Tony Snow said, “Obviously he works very closely with Prime Minister Olmert, and thinks that he’s essential in working toward a two-state solution. The president remains committed to it. We’re not going to comment on, obviously, internal investigations within the Israeli government.”

The report’s five authors — a mix of judges, former generals and an expert on public policy — said they would refrain from making recommendations about specific people and posts.

Nevertheless, after months of speculation and a recent barrage of media leaks, the harsh condemnations in the commission’s interim findings took even seasoned politicians and pundits by surprise.

“The prime minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one,” the report said. “Also, his decision was made without close study of the complex features of the Lebanon front and of the military, political and diplomatic options available to Israel. All of these add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.”

Still, as scathing as the commission was about Olmert’s failings, it was perhaps even more damning of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

The commission charged Peretz, a novice in military matters, with not properly consulting experts, and said Halutz was negligent in not presenting a range of alternative strategic plans. Halutz stepped down in anticipation of the report. Peretz says he plans to stay put.

David Frenkel, a law professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said even though the public wants to see a change in the top leadership, there is danger in moving too quickly to new elections. “We are facing a very hard time with Hezbollah in the north and Iran,” Frenkel said. “To leave everything behind and go to elections would be considered a luxury.

“There will be a next war,” he added. “And instead of preparing for it, we are constantly dealing with who is to be blamed for the past.”

It is natural for the public to place blame, he said, but suggested that Israeli society did not acknowledge Israel’s achievements in the war — namely that Hezbollah had been struck a severe blow and were pushed back from the border.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said after the war that he never would have launched the conflict had he anticipated Israel’s massive response, a sign that the war may have succeeded in restoring Israel’s deterrent capacity after years in which Hezbollah felt it could attack the Jewish state with impunity.

“One should not forget it was not Israel who launched the war, but Israel had to defend itself,” Frenkel said.

Yediot Achronot analyst Nahum Barnea said it was understood that Israel had not sought out the confrontation, but that the Winograd Commission still had an obligation to examine the grave mistakes made in managing the war. “It is not the thirst for answers that led to the committee being formed, it was the hunger for punishment,” he said.

Israelis now are waiting to see how that quest for punishment will translate on the ground. It appears Olmert’s rivals in his Kadima Party are in no rush to topple him, and continue to argue over possible successors. At an emergency meeting, 26 out of 29 Kadima lawmakers expressed support for Olmert.

Kadima’s partners in the coalition government also are not overly anxious to change the status quo if it could mean losing seats in the process.

The question of who would fill a leadership void remains open. Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu leads the polls, but neither he nor other potential candidates seem to command much enthusiasm.

At the heart of public bitterness toward the current leadership is anger over the trauma they experienced last summer — the trauma of seeing that the government and army might not be capable of protecting them.

“The fact is that people were killed, homes were destroyed, the home front was so totally unequipped, and people’s sons and husbands were fighting without food and water,” said Galia Golan, academic director of the International Program in Conflict Resolution at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

“The trauma of not being protected has to be expressed in some way,” she said. “Security is vital to everyone here. Having lost that is traumatic.”

The Jerusalem Post and JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this story.


Peace possibilities take back seat to Winograd fallout