An Israeli commission of inquiry is only partly through investigating the Lebanon war, but already it may have done all it can to shape Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political fate.
The Winograd Commission released interim findings April 30 lambasting Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz for their handling of last summer’s monthlong war with Hezbollah.
It was a conflict that shook the core belief of Israelis in their country’s ability to defend itself.
The five-member commission painted a portrait of government leaders whose inexperience in national security matters allowed them to be drawn into a campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas that lacked proper strategy.
“We impose primary responsibility for these failures on the prime minister, the minister of defense and the military chief of staff, the report said. All three made a decisive personal contribution. The prime minister bears supreme and overall responsibility for the decisions of his government and the operations of the military.”
The report urged a “fundamental rectification” of the problems in question, but limited its own recommendations to institutional matters such as the need for a state-run crisis management center.
That the panel was appointed by the government incensed many Israelis, who wanted a more independent probe. And the report confined itself to the first five days of the war before the Israeli campaign really lost direction, by most experts’ accounts. A report on the rest of the war is not expected out until next year.
The commission’s findings are unlikely to mollify Olmert’s critics and the Israeli opposition.
“Just one sentence is missing here: ‘Given the aforementioned, Olmert cannot continue in his post,’ ” said Amnon Rubinstein, a commentator with Channel Two television.
Olmert and Peretz, who received the Winograd report an hour before its public rel! ease, ha d no immediate response. But the prime minister signaled that he intended to weather the storm of censure.
“We will definitely study your material and ensure that in any future scenario where Israel comes under threat, the difficulties and faults that you cited will be corrected,” Olmert said in broadcast remarks as he was handed the report.
Critics have called for Olmert’s ouster, citing polls suggesting that he is the least popular Israeli prime minister ever.
But Olmert commands a broad coalition government, and political analysts say he may benefit from public apathy and perceptions that now is not the time for new elections.
Barely a dozen protesters picketed the Winograd Commission press conference with calls for Olmert to step down.
Uzi Dayan, a retired general turned reformist politician, has called for a mass rally Thursday, but the turnout is not expected to be large.
Ha’aretz political correspondent Aluf Benn predicted that Olmert would ride out the controversy over the interim report and say that before the complete findings are released in July, he cannot be expected to make a major decision about his future.
Olmert also can spend the intervening months trying to drum up a new diplomatic initiative perhaps cultivating the Saudi plan for Israeli-Arab peace that will occupy the public’s attention and give them a reason to keep him in office.
“This means that if he manages to hold on until next year, he will not have to worry about going down in history as Israel’s least accomplished prime minister,” Benn wrote.
For Peretz, resignation might be the best option, especially as the commission suggested that the defense minister had actually harmed national security.
Peretz’s “role as defense minister during the war weakened the government’s abilities to meet its challenges,” panel chairman Eliahu Winograd said.
Ben Caspit of Ma’ariv noted that Peretz will be challenged as le! ader of the Labor Party in a primary election next month and could turn the tables against his two main rivals former general and prime minister Ehud Barak and former Navy admiral and Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon.
Caspit said that if Peretz quits now as defense minister, he could ask Olmert for the finance ministry.
“The natural advantage that Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon currently have in the party primary would evaporate immediately, Caspit wrote. Peretz would steal the headline, become the tragic hero of the campaign and reshuffle the deck.”
Hezbollah, which sparked the war by abducting two Israeli army soldiers and killing eight others in a cross-border raid last July, relayed live coverage of the Winograd Commission on its television station, Al-Manar.
Though Lebanon lost 1,200 people to the war Israel lost 158 and the country suffered massive damage, the Iranian-backed militia insists on calling it a “divine victory” for the Arab and Shi’ite Muslim world.
Hezbollah supporters this week put up a billboard within view of the Lebanese-Israeli border with pictures of the captive soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
“For our detainees” read an accompanying slogan, in reference to Hezbollah’s insistence on trading the captives for a large number of Arabs held captive in Israel — a deal Olmert has resisted.