Thursday, 31 January 2008

Israeli inquiry blasts war effort

Olmert's government, military ripped for 'failures and flaws' in 2006 combat in Lebanon

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE : Thursday, January 31, 2008

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for his political life after a 16-month government inquiry Wednesday slammed his conduct of the 2006 war in Lebanon.

The inquiry, headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Eliyahu Winograd, blasted Olmert's government and the Israeli army for "serious failings and shortcomings," blaming them for "a great and severe missed opportunity" in the 33-day war with Hezbollah militia.

Reservists, some families of soldiers killed during the conflict known as the Second Lebanon War along with Israeli opposition leaders quickly called on Olmert to resign.

"The Winograd Committee placed clear responsibility on the political echelon, which is led by the prime minister, and he must take personal responsibility and quit," said a statement from the right-wing opposition Likud party.

The five-member committee did not call for any resignations, but it detailed "structural and systemic malfunctioning" and referred repeatedly to "failures and flaws" in the decision-making process, which it said were shared equally between military officials and politicians. All military leaders involved in the 2006 conflict already have resigned, including the former army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. Ex-Defense Minister Amir Peretz was replaced in an internal party contest.

"Israel embarked on a prolonged war that it initiated, which ended without a clear Israeli victory from a military standpoint," Winograd told reporters after delivering his 629-page report to Olmert. "A quasi-military organization (Hezbollah) withstood the strongest army in the Middle East for weeks," Winograd said.

"We found serious failings and flaws in the quality of preparedness, decision-making and performance in the (Israel Defense Forces) high command, especially in the army," Winograd said. "We found serious failings and flaws in the lack of strategic thinking and planning, in both the political and the military echelons. We found severe failings and flaws in the defense of the civilian population and in coping with its being attacked by rockets."

Within minutes of the report's publication, Olmert was assailed by politicians from both sides of the political spectrum.

"Olmert will enter history as Israel's most failed leader," said Arieh Eldad, a legislator for the rightist National Union-National Religious Party.

Yossi Beilin, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, said "critical decisions for the future of Israel were made without using judgment and without understanding their potential outcomes."

"If the prime minister understands that he bears personal responsibility, the only conclusion is not that he is the only one who can amend his mistakes, but that he must resign," Beilin said.

Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz called the report "a damning and inescapable indictment. In one of its central assertions, the report noted that Israel cannot survive in this region without the political and military leadership, military capabilities and social robustness to deter and if necessary overcome its enemies," Horovitz wrote. "And in its withering depiction of the capabilities of the government and the IDF senior command that oversaw the Second Lebanon War, the committee made appallingly clear how absent those fundamental, existential qualities were."

Although it seems unthinkable that a prime minister could continue in office following such severe criticism from a committee which he himself appointed, Olmert has said he will not be forced out.

"The prime minister intends to take responsibility and lead a process to fix the flaws," said Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel, a key government adviser. "Taking responsibility means staying on, fixing, improving and continuing to lead the way forward."

Owing to the vagaries of Israeli politics, Olmert's political future rests with his largest coalition partner, Labor Party leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak promised last year to quit the government and force early elections if the report criticized Olmert, but recently he has shown signs that he, too, wishes to remain in the current government.

But if Barak pulls Labor's 19-member faction out of the coalition, Olmert will no longer have a parliamentary majority and could be forced to call an election. Recent polls indicate that Israeli voters would bring back former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party.

On Wednesday, dozens of reservists demonstrated outside Olmert's Tel Aviv office to remind him of his promise to step down if the report criticized his handling of the war. At the same time, critics within his Kadima party remained silent, but his closest allies appeared confident that the prime minister would survive.

"Unless Ehud Barak springs something dramatic on us, the report will be history by next week," said Vice Premier Haim Ramon. "No one in Kadima will rise against the prime minister."

The Winograd report, however, did exonerate Olmert from the most serious accusation leveled against him - that he needlessly launched a last-minute offensive in the final days of the war at the cost of the lives of 33 Israeli soldiers. The dead included Jonathan Grossman, the son of renowned author David Grossman, who has been among the most prominent Israeli figures calling for Olmert to quit. The committee said the decision to launch the final ground offensive was "legitimate."

Israel launched what became the Second Lebanon War on July 12, 2006, after Hezbollah forces killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two more on patrol along the Israel-Lebanon border. The militant Shiite group also attacked nearby Israeli villages with Katyusha rockets.

At least 1,109 Lebanese were killed in the subsequent Israeli invasion, most of them civilians, according to Human Rights Watch, while 119 Israeli soldiers and 40 civilians were killed. More than 1 million Israelis were forced to leave their homes or huddle in shelters under daily Hezbollah rocket bombardment.

This article appeared on page A - 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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