Can Olmert Survive Winograd?


Yakum, Israel — It’s been nearly 16 months since the guns along the border with Lebanon have fallen silent, but the last chapter in Israel’s bungled war against Hezbollah has yet to be closed.

The political fate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the emotional baggage of dozens of bereaved parents will be riding on the conclusions of the Winograd Commission’s report on the war, which are scheduled to be released on Jan. 30.

"This is the last milestone. If Olmert succeeds in getting over this hurdle, he’ll have weathered the storm," said Yisrael Klausner, whose son Ehud was killed by a Hezbollah sniper in the Lebanese village Bint Jbeil.

"Our battle is not something personal against Olmert. It’s about values — the values we educated our sons with when we encouraged them to serve in combat units. We encouraged them take responsibility, and they took responsibility in the war.

"Only one person hasn’t taken responsibility," Klausner continued, "and that’s Olmert."

Olmert’s government nearly caved after the Winograd’s preliminary report eight months ago described his authorization of the war as a "serious failure." He could face a similar shockwave depending on the final report’s assessment of Olmert’s decision to embark on the war’s final offensive — which costs 33 soldiers their lives — as diplomats at the United Nations neared a cease-fire deal.

But Klausner and analysts believe that the survival of the Olmert government will ultimately depend on parliamentary politics — where the prime minister is considered a deft navigator — rather than the wave of public outrage and protest that shook up the Begin government after first Lebanon war.

Klausner and a group of bereaved parents who oppose the government on Monday are focusing on convincing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who called on Olmert to resign following the preliminary report, to pull the Labor Party out of the coalition.

"Barak is the only chance," he said after the group met with the defense minister earlier this week. "If Barak wants to be a leader, he needs to bring down the government."

Israelis will be reading closely the Winograd Commission’s interpretation of Olmert’s decision to order Israeli forces to capture southern Lebanese territory south of the Litani River and to snuff out Katyusha fire. If the commission implies that the operation was ordered by Olmert because of a political need to end the war with a successful offensive, the prime minister will face more pressure to resign.

"A lot depends on the language," said Shlomo Aronson, a professor of political science at Hebrew University.

"If the report is formulated in terms of reckless, almost irresponsible behavior, related to the last phase of the war," it could trigger a political landslide toward new elections, he said. "They may accuse him of having decided on this very hasty and unsuccessful operation in order to show to the public that the war was not lost."

Indeed, an excerpt from a book on the war published last weekend in the Haaretz magazine suggested that Olmert may have been influenced by former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who pressed for the offensive in order to improve Israel’s image at the end of the war.

"It was an operation that many thought was poorly planned and was the wrong decision. That is an extremely important point," said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist from Bar-Ilan University.

"The question is going to be about responsibility: Are they going to blame the military or the civilian leaders," Steinberg continued. "The question is will Olmert be severely criticized for the wrong decision for the wrong reasons. Did a lot of soldiers die for Olmert’s political career?"

Although not as politically loaded, another important chapter of the report will discuss the preparation of Israel’s home front for a war in which it became the main target for Hezbollah Katyusha rockets. Much has been made of the lack of bomb shelters in the communities under attack. The report is expected to examine the prime minister’s decision not to declare a state of emergency in the north, which could have set into motion public support for the population that faced daily missile barrages.

The report is also expected to delve into whether Israel missed an opportunity to cut an early deal with Hezbollah for the return of two soldiers kidnapped from Israeli territory at the start of the war — Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. The Winograd Commission is expected to rule as well on Israel’s use of cluster bombs during the war, a move that has sparked accusations of war crimes.

Olmert initially held up the war and the UN resolution limiting Hezbollah activities as a victory. And yet, the conventional wisdom among Israelis is that the war was a resounding failure that hurt Israel’s deterrence capability.

But it is unclear whether another stinging report will be translated into a political upheaval in the parliament. Labor leader Barak, experts say, is an unlikely candidate to resign because opinion polls suggest his party would lose a new election to Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud.

Recent polls of Labor Party members have indicated that most of its voter base opposes leaving the coalition right now.

"The current coalition is the best available coalition for Israel at this moment, and there is no reason to dismantle it," said Labor leader Ephraim Sneh. "I am speaking about the interest of the State of Israel."

Indeed, the prime minister’s decision to embark on peace negotiations with the Palestinians for the first time in seven years has helped to shore up support among the center-left of the political spectrum.

"I regret that Olmert never resigned and there were no new elections," wrote Shlomo Avineri in a Haaretz opinion article. "But what was correct a year and a half ago isn’t necessarily correct and suitable for today. Even one who concluded that Olmert failed during the Lebanon war can’t ignore that his diplomatic and security moves indicate a responsible and enlightened mode of operation."

And yet, on Wednesday Olmert’s coalition showed signs of buckling as the minister for strategic threats, Avigdor Lieberman, pulled his right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party out of the government in protest over the prime minister’s decision to negotiate on "core" issues, including the status of Jerusalem.

A political commentator on Israel Radio speculated that Lieberman might have decided to leave the government in anticipation of a political earthquake from the Winograd Commission.

The preliminary Winograd report nearly prompted Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to mount a challenge to Olmert within his Kadima Party, but she backed down. This time around, the prime minister could come under fire from Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is reportedly concerned about the impact of the report on his own political future.

The surprisingly sharp initial report did succeed in drawing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to protest the government, but the public movement quickly lost steam. Analysts don’t expect the reaction to the final report will be much different.

"The public is tired of everything," admitted Klausner. "They have given up on leaders. And they don’t believe that they can change anything through demonstrations."

Ben Dror Yemini, an opinion editor at Maariv, said public protest won’t shock the political system into upheaval. "The public is not satisfied, but it isn’t going into streets. There will be one protest in Rabin Square. It’s part of the political routine."