Report Calls for Examination of Israel’s Military Strategy

Dateline Jerusalem

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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Eliyahu Winograd has read out many judgments in his life. In Israeli history, however, the judgment for which the wizened former judge will be remembered is the one he read in a dry, steady voice on the last day of April 2007: the brief, harsh summary of his committee’s initial report on what went wrong last summer when Israel went to war in Lebanon.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the five-member panel concluded, “made up his mind hastily” to go to war, though “no detailed military plan was submitted to him.” He ignored his own inexperience in military and foreign affairs, and failed to consult those more expert. Olmert bore responsibility “for the fact that the goals of the campaign were not set out clearly and carefully,” and failed to discuss whether the military operation could achieve those goals. The report, in short, indicted the prime minister for recklessness, overconfidence and abject lack of strategic thinking.

Yet the committee stressed that the failure was not just personal, but also institutional: Israel lacks an up-to-date strategic doctrine, it said, and successive leaders have not developed a national security staff capable of advising them. Top officers who knew the army was unready for war did not speak up. Because the government-appointed panel wanted to hasten reforms, it rushed out a partial report that covers only the start of the war. Complete conclusions will be issued this summer.

It’s essential to keep both sides of the report in mind. Olmert’s chances of political survival are poor, despite a lucky intersection of his political allies’ weakness and his rivals’ strength, which complicates any prospect of unseating him.

As a nation, however, Israel can’t depend on luck. It must, the Winograd report makes clear, relearn how and when to use military force.

Regarding Olmert, the report unsparingly details mismanagement. In his few months in office, it says, he had not learned enough about the Lebanese front. So last July 12, after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, he did not understand “the mismatch between the army’s recommendations and the goals that he himself saw as desirable.” Quickly reaching a decision to begin a major military attack, Olmert did not consult with experts outside the army on alternative responses.

The prime minister, the report states, was obligated to carry out “the insight… that [war] was a combination of military and diplomatic action.” He failed to do so. Moreover, there was no structured “cooperation and ongoing discussion between the prime minister… and the foreign minister and her top staff.” In other words, Olmert flunked the basic test of treating war as politics by other means.

Sharp as they are, those criticisms aren’t terribly new. They match what pundits and worried citizens were saying last summer, while Hezbollah rockets were still falling on northern Israel and the army switched from air campaign to commando raids to all-out ground fighting. Last August, this column asked “whether the tactics have been poorly matched to the goals, or whether perhaps the goals themselves have been unclear.” Nor were we alone.

What’s new is the imprimatur of an official panel. Arguably, the Israeli public’s insistence on inquiry committees, on treating political issues as judicial ones to be settled by secular sages, has only delayed the debate on Olmert’s fitness to run the country.

The Winograd panel also put blame on Defense Minister Amir Peretz and ex-chief of staff Dan Halutz. Again, the public didn’t need an inquiry to know that Peretz, the Labor Party leader who ran on an economic platform, was manifestly unqualified to be defense chief, or that Halutz, an arrogant former air force commander, failed to prepare the ground forces for war. But Halutz has already quit, and Peretz is virtually certain to lose the upcoming leadership vote in Labor to ex-prime minister Ehud Barak or Knesset member Ami Ayalon, the former navy commander and Shin Bet chief. (Barak’s prospects may also be hurt by the report: It says that after Israel’s unilateral pullout from Lebanon in 2000, his strategy for containing Hezbollah failed.)

But the report does highlight Olmert’s unfathomable cockiness. When he testified before the committee, the report says, he still believed “that there was no real flaw in his decisions.” An Israel TV report the night the report was issued said Olmert was shocked by the severity of the criticism. Nonetheless, he went on the air to declare he wouldn’t quit.

In theory, parliamentary democracy provides an elegant solution: The Knesset could vote to hold new elections. But the current Knesset has been serving only a year, and politicians are loath to face primaries and the national electorate so soon. Olmert’s Kadima party knows it could vanish completely. Other coalition parties would also suffer. The one figure eager for an early ballot is the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who is leading in polls. But he doesn’t have the votes in the Knesset to force elections.

For that matter, even Netanyahu should be cautious. As finance minister under Ariel Sharon, he cut the military budget. The Winograd panel says the cutbacks left the army under-trained and unprepared for war.

The parliamentary system’s other alternative is for Kadima to convince Olmert to quit. The party could then pick a candidate to form a new government. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is the frontrunner. She’s untouched by the numerous corruption scandals of recent months. The Winograd report makes a parenthetical aside about her own lack of military and diplomatic experience. But it also indicates that she sought a diplomatic solution virtually from the start of the war, and was shunted aside by Olmert.

Curiously, Livni’s popularity could hamper her. Party rivals — such as Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz — know she’s only 48 years old. If she were successful as prime minister, they could have a long wait for another chance at the top. A weak caretaker — or an elderly one, such as the perennially available Shimon Peres — could be more convenient.

Even more threatening for Kadima’s politicians, however, is the prospect of total loss of public support. By Tuesday, Olmert’s efforts to keep the party behind him were unraveling. Unattributed media reports said that both coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter were lining up support for Livni. The looming question was how long Livni herself could stay silent — and how much public protest the report will ignite.

Whoever sits in the prime minister’s office, it’s clear to all sides that the structural problems raised by Winograd and his colleagues must be addressed. It’s essential, the committee said, that the Cabinet not depend on the army alone for strategic recommendations. This means that the National Security Council must be strengthened. The Foreign Ministry, the committee stressed, must be a full partner in any discussions on the use of military force — an institutional change expressing the elementary idea that force serves political purposes. The report also implies that the army itself is again suffering from groupthink, with dissenting views quashed. That’s precisely the problem that blinded the military to the risk of surprise attack 34 years ago, before the Yom Kippur War.

So here, too, the commission was repeating well-known truths. Ignoring those truths cost Israel deeply last summer. Now that Winograd has uttered judgment, the real test is making changes: not just in who serves as prime minister, but in how he — or she — carries out the job.

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