With “failure” officially stamped on Ehud Olmert’s management of last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the question is: What happens now?
The Israeli public, deeply critical and hungry for blame, may yet stop short of ousting the unpopular prime minister because of a lack of alternatives. Also because the official commission of inquiry into the war found fault not only with Olmert but with the government and military leadership as a whole, past and present.
“I think he is going to be stubborn and refuse to resign,” Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University, said of Olmert.
“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. But most of these elements are, for the time being, under his control,” Diskin said. “What we have is a very big drama but not a real earthquake yet.”
In fact, Olmert said Monday following the release of the Winograd Commission’s interim report that though “serious mistakes were made, mainly by me,” during the war, he would not resign.
Shortly after telling his Kadima Party faction that he had no intention of stepping down, Olmert 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.”
Other prime ministers have stepped down in the wake of public anger and disappointment following wars, even when no official inquiry body demanded they take that action.
Golda Meir resigned after the Yom Kippur War, and Menachem Begin eventually stepped down after launching the first Lebanon War.
Asked how President Bush regarded the Winograd Commission report, White House spokesman Tony Snow! said, ” Well, 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 at this point 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.”
The war began after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in a cross-border raid July 12. Israel counterattacked, but Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz at first relied mainly on air force and artillery shelling, which exacted a steep price on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure but failed to budge Hezbollah from its heavily fortified bunkers near the border. The militia continued launching short-range rockets into northern Israel until the very end of the war.
By the time troops and tanks were finally unleashed in force just days before an Aug. 12 cease-fire was brokered by the United Nations, the damage to Israel’s prestige had been done. Critics charged that soldiers’ lives were wasted on a futile ground mission in the war’s waning hours, long after it could have made a real difference.
Some 160 Israelis, one-quarter of them civilians, were killed i! n the war. Some 1,000 Lebanese were killed, most of them classified as civilians.
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 Dan Halutz was negligent in not presenting a range of alternative strategic plans. Halutz stepped down in anticipation of the report.
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 echelon, there was a danger in moving too quickly to new elections. With the government in power for only 13 months, existential issues that need to be addressed are more important than campaigning, Frenkel said.
“We are facing a very hard time with Hezbollah in the North and Iran,” he said. “To leave everything behind and go to elections would be considered a luxury.”
Frenkel went on to say, “There will be a next war, and instead of preparing for it we are constantly dealing with who is to be blamed for the past.”
He said it was natural for the public to place blame but suggested that Israeli society did not acknowledge Israel’s achievements in the war — namely that Hezbollah had been pushed back from the border and struck a severe blow.
Hezbollah lost virtually its entire arsenal of long-range missiles to Israeli airstrikes in the war’s opening days, and some analysts said the militia lost nearly half its fighting force. Hezbollah publicly downplays its losses.
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 to examine the grave mistakes made in managing the war.
“There was a failed war here in the summer,” Barnea wrote. “It was the most naked of Israel’s wars: We knew in real time nearly everything that was said in the government, the Security Cabinet and the corridors of the IDF General Staff; we knew about the fiascos and the blunders, about the army’s ineffectuality on the front line and about the disintegration on the home front.
“We know what expectations Olmert, Peretz and Halutz created in the public, and we know what the results were on the ground,” he continued. “It is not the thirst for answers that led to the committee being formed, it was the hunger for punishment.”
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, as they continue to argue over possible successors.
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.
Scheduled anti-government rallies might provide a clue as to how intent the public is not just to vent its anger but to actively seek a change.
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.”
JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this story.