JERUSALEM (JTA) – In the year and a half since Israel’s failures in the Second Lebanon War, Ehud Olmert has weathered incessant criticism that unlike many Israeli leaders, he’s no ex-general.
But this very lack of military experience paradoxically may have spared the prime minister the full brunt of a commission of inquiry’s censure and saved his political career.
The long-awaited final report by the Winograd Commission published Wednesday painted a dismal picture of Israel’s 34-day offensive waged against Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia in the summer of 2006. It said the war was desperately lacking in strategies, relevant tactics and even proper communication between the army’s top brass and Olmert’s government.
“Overall, we regard the Second Lebanon war as a serious missed opportunity,” the panel’s chairman, retired judge Eliahu Winograd, said at a news conference carried live on Israeli TV and radio. “Israel initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory.
“A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages.”
But while the five-member panel said Israel went to war without sufficient deliberation after Hezbollah abducted two of its soldiers on July 12, 2006 in a cross-border raid, it presented a kinder view of the Olmert government’s biggest and most controversial gamble: an 11th-hour ground offensive in southern Lebanon waged even as a cease-fire was being hammered out at the U.N. Security Council.
The report said that move, which cost the lives of 33 soldiers, did not significantly repel Hezbollah or improve truce terms. But it presented this primarily as a function of the poor fighting capability of the armed forces, voicing confidence that Olmert and his then-defense minister, Amir Peretz, approved the offensive in good faith.
“We believe that they both acted out of a strong and sincere perception of what they thought at the time was Israel’s interest,” Winograd said.
That perhaps more than any other statement in the 500-page report was the reprieve needed by Olmert, who brushed off calls to resign even after Peretz and his wartime military chief, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, stepped down in disgrace.
The report’s conclusion that Olmert acted out of his perception of Israel’s best interests and that the Israel Defense Forces and various levels of government share responsibility for the war’s failures bolstered Olmert’s position.
His coalition partners gave no indication, at least initially, that the report’s conclusions were sufficiently harsh to prompt them to quit the government and thereby hasten new elections.
Olmert’s office said in a statement that he would spend the coming days studying the report and arranging for its recommendations to be implemented. Aides to the prime minister made clear he was staying on.
“Responsibility means remaining, fixing, improving and continuing to lead,” Olmert’s Cabinet secretary, Oved Yehezkel, told Army Radio.
That was a strikingly different interpretation than the one given by war veterans and the families of slain soldiers who have campaigned for Olmert’s ouster. They are saying, like Winograd, that the Second Lebanon War left Israel less capable of deterring its regional foes.
“Really, this report was harsh enough to warrant Olmert going home,” said Elisheva Tsemach, whose son Oz was among the war dead.
A poll commissioned by Israel’s Channel 2 TV found that 56 percent of Israelis want Olmert to quit, compared to 27 percent who don’t – daunting figures, but nothing new to a prime minister whose approval ratings reached single digits in the war’s immediate aftermath.
But with Olmert determined to see out his term in office – perhaps delivering a peace deal with the Palestinians and an effective answer to Iran’s nuclear program during that time – there is no mechanism to force him out.
Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party heads a coalition government with a strong parliamentary majority capable of fending off no-confidence motions. Some in Kadima would like to challenge Olmert one day – Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit are among them – but they are also aware that Olmert is favored by the United States as he pursues peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Olmert critics are still placing hopes that Defense Minister Ehud Barak might trigger early elections by pulling the Labor Party – the biggest junior partner in the coalition – out of the government. The Channel 2 poll found that 45 percent of Israelis think Labor should quit the government, while 41 percent don’t.
Immediately after the report’s publication, Barak made no indication that he would remove Labor from the government.
Olmert’s negotiations with Abbas are a powerful reason for Labor, the architect of the Oslo peace accords, to stay. And Barak, a former prime minister who re-entered politics only last summer after a six-year hiatus, is seen by most analysts as still way off from consolidating his power base.
Barak publicly has said that for now he sees his primary duty as ensuring that the IDF is overhauled to prepare for a future war. He was quoted this week as telling Olmert’s security Cabinet that the prime minister alone cannot be held responsible for military failures in wartime.
“I say to you that there will be no elections,” said Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, an Olmert confidant in Kadima. “The prime minister is firm in this position. No pressure campaign will change that.”
Another Olmert stalwart went as far as to say that the opposition leader, Likud leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should join forces with Kadima.
“Now is the time for a national unity government, with which we can face the challenges that face it,” said Tzahi Hanegbi, who heads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “The prime minister, like all Israelis, came out of the war bruised, but there were also achievements. Now is that time to get over it and look ahead.”