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Olmert Appoints Commission on War, but Critics in Israel’s Military Cry Foul

September 18, 2006
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A month after the Lebanon war ended in a tentative truce, Israel has embarked on a public reckoning. The Cabinet on Sunday approved Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s choice for a commission of inquiry into the 34-day offensive against Hezbollah, which left many Israelis feeling that national security is worse off.

“I very much hope that the panel will complete its work in the near future, as soon as possible, and will assist the State of Israel in better preparing for the challenges that await us,” Olmert said.

But Olmert’s critics, including hundreds of army reservists who served in Lebanon and accuse his government and the military top brass of incompetence, cried foul.

Headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliyahu Winograd, the panel also includes two leading jurists and former army generals. It is empowered by law to subpoena witnesses and grant them immunity from prosecution.

Yet that authority is undercut, in many Israelis’ eyes, by the fact that the commission was appointed by the very people it might be expected to scrutinize — Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz.

Reservists groups and public watchdogs such as the Movement for Quality Government had called for the Supreme Court to set up an independent probe that could, in theory, cause a major shake-up in Jerusalem.

The Lebanon war cost 157 Israeli lives without delivering the promised definitive victory over Hezbollah. The Lebanese militia’s backers, Syria and Iran, are perceived by many as having been bolstered by their proxy’s fortitude against the Middle East’s mightiest military.

The government says a quarter of Hezbollah’s gunmen were killed and half of its rockets used or destroyed in the fighting.

Many in the Jewish state liken the Lebanon campaign’s disappointments to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israeli forces were battered in a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. After that conflict, an independent commission delivered recommendations which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir, her chief of military staff, David Elazar, and another top general.

Olmert has argued that Israel could not afford an independent inquiry, as it would take too long to issue its findings and breed recrimination rather than cooperation in the effort to prepare for future threats.

But it was not clear whether the so-called Winograd Commission would be any more expeditious. Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon told reporters that there was “no time frame” for the panel’s work.

Protesters gathered outside the Prime Minister’s Office marched bearing effigies of Olmert and Peretz on a stretcher. Another group held a sign reading, “Only an ass can’t tell the Winograd Commission is a whitewash.”

An opposition lawmaker vowed to work for a Knesset majority to set up an independent inquiry, in which case, under law, the Winograd Commission would have to disband.

“Some of the reservists are saying, ‘When it comes to investigating some of the events, we won’t be cooperating with a commission that was set up by the very government that was such a failure in waging the war,’ ” Gilad Erdan, a senior member of the Likud Party, told Israel Radio.

“The prime minister must prove that his considerations in the execution of the war were relevant, rather than partisan. This cloud of doubt must be dispersed.”

Olmert angered many right-wingers during the fighting by saying that he was confident the offensive would strengthen his government’s hand in carrying out planned withdrawals from the West Bank. But in the aftermath of the war, the prime minister has had to shelve his vision of unilateral territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

Many Israelis feel especially aggrieved by a final and bloody ground offensive ordered by Olmert after he had agreed, in principle, to the Aug. 14 cease-fire. Thirty-three soldiers died in those two days.

“That was a spin move. It had no substantive security-political goal, only a spin goal. It was meant to supply the missing victory picture,” the former chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, told Ha’aretz.

“You don’t do that. You don’t send soldiers to carry out a futile mission after the political outcome has already been set. I consider that corrupt.”

For now, time would appear to be in Olmert’s favor — especially if he achieves a breakthrough in backdoor efforts to negotiate the release of the two Israeli reservists whose July 12 abduction triggered the war, as well as an Israeli conscript held hostage by Palestinian gunmen since June 25.

On the latter front, there have been a slew of media reports indicating that Cpl. Gilad Shalit could soon be freed by his captors in the Gaza Strip, possibly in exchange for Israel’s release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

“We believe there will be some kind of progress in the chances to release him. I hope it will come true soon,” Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit said.

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