Halutz  another war casualty

IDF chief Dan Halutz, right, reviews troop advances in southern Lebanon on Aug. 12 with officers commanding Israeli forces in that area. (Abir Sultan/IDF)

IDF chief Dan Halutz, right, reviews troop advances in southern Lebanon on Aug. 12 with officers commanding Israeli forces in that area. (Abir Sultan/IDF)

JERUSALEM, Jan. 17 (JTA) — Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz made history by becoming the first chief of Israel’s armed forces to resign of his free will. The reverberations of the move could continue to impact the country’s future.

Halutz, 58, announced early Wednesday that he was stepping down, citing a slew of internal probes into last summer’s Lebanon war, which many Israelis believe undermined national security.

“I have always acted with deliberation according to the values of morality, loyalty, integrity, honesty and comradeship,” the decorated former fighter pilot wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. “The essence of this responsibility was realized during and after the conflict in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. When the echoes of combat had died down, I decided to exhaust this responsibility to the fullest.”

The resignation was widely expected, yet was described in Israel and abroad as an “earthquake” for a country still reeling from the 34-day war with Hezbollah in July and August.

The aftershocks could eventually topple Olmert and Peretz.

“Halutz made a courageous decision yesterday, one that is unprecedented in the local landscape,” Yediot Achronot defense analyst Alex Fishman wrote.

His counterpart at Ma’ariv, Amir Rappaport, opined, “Now it’s Defense Minister Amir Peretz’s turn to hand in the keys, so the Israel Defense Forces will be able to embark on a new path. And what about Olmert? The public will judge his performance.”

Olmert and Peretz saw their popularity plummet over the war, in which 157 Israelis died. Though the war was sparked by an unprovoked cross-border raid in which Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two more, the war’s eventual toll in Lebanese civilians and infrastructure drew international condemnation of Israel.

A poll commissioned by Israel’s Channel 10 television found that 69 percent of Israelis want Olmert to follow Halutz’s lead and resign. Some 85 percent called for Peretz to step down.

A U.N.-brokered cease-fire Aug. 14 largely banished Hezbollah from Israel’s northern frontier, but the Iranian-backed militia saw its survival as a sort of a victory and has made little secret of its plans to rearm.

Hezbollah supporters held fireworks celebrations upon hearing that Halutz quit, and the militia’s Al-Manar television station described the resignation as the “cataclysm after the defeat.”

Olmert, who also has been dogged by corruption allegations, voiced regret at Halutz’s decision, calling him “one of Israel’s great soldiers” but conspicuously choosing not to mention the Lebanon war. Peretz said Halutz was resigning “prematurely.”

Halutz’s appointment as Israel’s top general in June 2005 was unusual given his previous post of Air Force chief. Critics suggested that he did not have the necessary ground-force experience to oversee a major campaign — something that appeared to be confirmed in Lebanon, where Israel at first relied on aerial bombing before sending in troops and tanks, and then not in enough numbers to make a difference.

Halutz had long resisted calls to step down, saying he did not bear all the responsibility for the handling of the war.

Once out of uniform, he could have damning revelations to make about the government’s handling of the war when he appears before the official commission of inquiry. Known as the Winograd Committee, the commission is expected to deliver its interim findings as early as next month.

Strong criticism of Olmert and Peretz could be enough to tear apart the governing coalition of their Kadima and Labor parties. On Wednesday, opposition factions from across the political spectrum were unanimous in demanding early elections.

Halutz can claim to have completed one mission — the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip.

But with that move apparently having contributed to Hamas’ takeover of the Palestinian Authority, and with no peace deal in sight, any sense of satisfaction Halutz feels must be limited.

“I feel sorry for the man himself, but then again, he did something that was simply terrible for the Jewish people,” said Eran Sternberg, former spokesman for the main Gaza settlements.

Halutz is expected to stay on until a successor is chosen, perhaps as early as next week. The leading candidates are Halutz’s deputy, Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, reserve Maj.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, and Maj.-Gen. Benny Ganz, the ground-forces chief. All three are career infantrymen.

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