- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In its interim report delivered in April, the Winograd Commision, which was set up to critique the performance of the Israeli government and military in conducting the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, delivered a telling indictment of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. That report, which covered the first five days of the war which began July 12, 2006, made a powerful implicit case that Mr. Olmert and Mr. Peretz were serial incompetents in their conduct of the war, which Israel launched in response to a Hezbollah cross-border raid in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two others kidnapped. Mr. Olmert, the committee said, was guilty of “a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence in running the war.”

Mr. Peretz, it said, “did not put on the table — and did not demand presentation [of] — serious strategic options for discussion with the Prime Minister and IDF [Israel Defense Force.]” It added that “the minister of Defense failed in fulfilling his functions. Therefore, his serving as Minister of Defense during the war impaired Israel’s ability to respond well to its challenges.”

Both men, the report found, had failed to do a thorough enough job of consulting people with military experience about other available alternatives after Hezbollah attacked from Lebanon. Mr. Peretz and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz were both forced out of their respective offices within months of the release of the interim report. Despite calls for his resignation, Mr. Olmert clung to power. Meanwhile, his political allies within the IDF lobbied behind the scenes to dissuade the Winograd panel from recommending that Mr. Olmert or anyone else resign over Lebanon. The report issued last week is a tribute to their lobbying skill and an indication of how worried Israel’s center-left political establishment — in particular Mr. Olmert’s governing Kadima Party and its coalition allies in the Labor Party — are about holding early elections, in which Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud Party would in all likelihood do very well.

Even so, the report which was released last week came to some disturbing conclusions about the Olmert government’s conduct of the war. Once the Israeli government decided it had to respond forcefully to the Hezbollah raid, it had two distinct options, the Winograd Commission noted: “The first was a short, painful, strong and unexpected blow to Hezbollah, primarily through standoff firepower. The second option was to bring about a signicant change of the reality in the south of Lebanon with a large ground operation, including a temporary occupation of the south of Lebanon and ‘cleansing’ it of Hezbollah military infrastructure.” Paralyzed with indecision, Mr. Olmert wavered and the Israeli military spent 34 days shifting from one tactic to another without dislodging Hezbollah. In the last few days of the war, Mr. Olmert finally launched a major ground operation which was abruptly halted by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 (UNSCR 1701), a measure calling for a ceasefire.

That’s where the Winograd panel runs off the tracks. Judge Eliyahu Winograd, a respected jurist and chairman of the commission, made the following comments. “We should note that the war had significant diplomatic achievements,” he said. Resolution 1701 was “an achievement for Israel,” he added, and this conclusion would remain true even if only “part” of the resolution was actually implemented.

Judge Winograd’s comments are bizarre. Does he seriously believe that Israel is helped by signing onto United Nations resolutions that it knows its adversaries will flagrantly violate? UNSCR 1701 left a substantial amount of Hezbollah’s military infrastructure (in reality an extension of an Iranian government committed to Israel’s destruction) in place within rocket and missile range of the Jewish state. And there have been numerous reports from United Nations, Lebanese and Israeli sources documenting the fact that since the fighting ended in August 2006, Hezbollah has rebuilt its armed forces in Lebanon with substantial help from Iran and Syria. The judge’s comments read more like an after-the-fact rationalization aimed at salvaging Mr. Olmert’s political career than a serious effort to come to grips with what actually happened in the summer of 2006: Israeli political and military leaders talked of winning a decisive victory over an Iranian proxy but were forced to settle for a political stalemate. In the coming months, the Israeli public will need to weigh all of this and decide whether Mr. Olmert is fit to continue to lead the country through one of the most dangerous periods in its history.

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