Olmert Spared as Winograd Report Labels Lebanon War a 'Missed Opportunity'

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 30, 2008, issue of February 01, 2008.
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Despite a damning report stating that Israel’s summer 2006 war with Hezbollah “failed to achieve its objectives,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government seem to be emerging politically unharmed.

The report of a national commission headed by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd was expected to send shockwaves through the Israeli political system. But the commission’s decision not to point fingers at individuals over the war’s shortcomings appears to benefit Olmert, who has faced widespread criticism over the conduct of the war.

According to the report, published Wednesday in Jerusalem, Israel’s military offensive — launched in response to a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah killed three of its soldiers and abducted two others — represented “a missed opportunity.” The five-member panel argued that “Israel did not win the war,” which lasted 34 days and cost the lives of 119 soldiers, as well as 44 civilians killed by Hezbollah rockets that hit northern Israel.

Critics of the Olmert — joined by groups of reserve soldiers and bereaved families — had intensified in recent weeks their campaign to oust the prime minister because of his failures during the so-called Second Lebanon War. They took issue, specifically, with his decision to embark on a ground operation in the last 60 hours of the war, after the United Nations Security Council already had approved a ceasefire resolution. More than 30 Israeli soldiers were killed in the failed ground incursion.

The Winograd report, however, did not fault Olmert for making this decision. “It was not a failure to embark on the ground operation, despite its limited achievements and painful price,” the commission’s report states.

This finding has taken the edge off most criticism against Olmert and led Cabinet members to make clear they do not see any reason for his resignation. Haim Ramon, Israel’s deputy prime minister and a close confidant of Olmert, has said the report “totally exonerates” Olmert. Ramon called on opposition members who attacked the prime minister to apologize.

The key to Olmert’s political survival is now in the hands of Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, who is also the leader of the Labor Party, Olmert’s major coalition partner. Barak refused to immediately respond to the report, but according to reports in the Israeli press, he does not see the Winograd commission’s findings as a reason to break off his partnership with Olmert.

While largely sparing Israel’s political leadership, the commission had scathing criticism for the way the Israeli military conducted the war. “We found serious failures and shortcomings in the highest level of the military command, especially in the ground forces, the quality of deployment, preparedness, launching and implementation of decisions and orders,” Winograd said when presenting the commission’s main findings.

Most of the Israel’s senior commanders who led operations during the war, including the chief of staff and regional commanders, stepped down shortly after the war. Amir Peretz, who was defense minister at the time, was also replaced.

While avoiding direct accusations against individual political figures, the Winograd commission made it clear that it is now up to Israelis to make their own decisions regarding their leaders’ political futures. “It should be stressed that the fact we refrained from imposing personal responsibility does not imply that no such responsibility exists,” Winograd said.

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