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Jerusalem Reels After Scathing War Report

Jerusalem – After the war in Lebanon ended last August, Amnon Nachmias, a reserve paratroop colonel, left his farming village in the North and drove to Jerusalem to join hundreds of other reservists in a protest camp in front of the Supreme Court. Together they demanded that the government appoint a state inquiry into the failures of the war they just fought and lost, as he saw it, to Hezbollah.

When the government didn’t listen, Nachmias stopped eating.

“They wanted to continue as if nothing happened,” said Nachmias, 49, a father of three. “They thought that if they just sat quietly, the furor would pass.”

For 19 days, Nachmias kept up a hunger strike in the tent where he slept with other reservists. He lost 20 pounds. On the 20th day, the government caved in and announced the appointment of a commission under retired judge Eliyahu Winograd. Nachmias went home.

“We said we would wait and see if the commission would do serious work or would just work for those who appointed it,” he said.

On Tuesday, after the Winograd Commission released its scathing interim report, Nachmias sat and read all 171 pages. It left him with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it validated his anger. “It stated what I said all along, that the government did not adopt a cohesive and comprehensive military operations plan,” he said.

On the other hand, he found the confirmation upsetting. “My feeling is heavy,” Nachmias said. “It’s very sad to see that the running of the state is so negligent.”

Uzi Dayan, a retired major general who is one of Israel’s most respected military strategists, wasn’t a bit surprised by the damning report. “I knew [the report] wouldn’t be able to clear the names of those that appointed it,” said Dayan, onetime director of Israel’s National Security Council.

Dayan also expected that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz would refuse to resign. Two months ago, anticipating the report, he began preparing a public campaign to force out Olmert and Peretz, beginning with a mass demonstration this week in Tel Aviv.

“If they won’t resign, we’re going to send them home by public pressure,” said Dayan, a nephew of Israel’s most illustrious general.

The Winograd report focuses on the lead-up to the war and on the first six days; a final report, covering the rest of the war and broader implications, is due this summer. The interim report confirms what most Israelis had known since last year: that the army wasn’t prepared for this war and that the war was mismanaged.

The commission’s inquiry began with the year 2000, when Israel unilaterally withdrew its army from southern Lebanon after 18 years. The report describes a pattern of neglect as successive governments ignored the military buildup by Hezbollah along the border following the Israeli withdrawal.

Over the years, the commission found, the Israeli military’s ability to respond to provocations by Hezbollah was blunted by a government policy of “containment,” which meant abstaining from conducting cross-border military strikes unless Hezbollah conducted one first. The army’s options were also limited by a series of cuts in its resources — due partly to budget and manpower cuts, partly to a policy of deploying its best-trained forces to fight Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza, and partly to a mistaken belief that the days of ground war were over.

The war began July 12, hours after Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid, killed eight soldiers and kidnapped two others — something it had done successfully in the past, in hopes of trading them for Lebanese prisoners in Israel. Israel had responded in the past with limited strikes followed by negotiations. This time, the government decided — with hardly any discussion and no consideration of alternatives, according to the Winograd report — to respond with full force.

The report is scathing in its description of the launch: Cabinet ministers not realizing until days later that they had voted for a war; the chief of staff assuring the ministers that the army had plans for getting back the kidnapped soldiers and for neutralizing Hezbollah rockets, when no such plans existed; delays in calling up reservists, who then proved to be entirely unprepared for war, their training days eliminated in previous budget cuts and their equipment sheds unstocked for years.

And then confusion at the front as field commanders improvised battle plans in the face of an enemy the brass had underestimated.

Amir Bousany, 27, a Jerusalem computer engineer, remembers it well.

“It was stupid,” said Bousany, a reserve paratrooper in Nachmias’s regiment. “They shot at us, we shot at them, they shot back. But we weren’t allowed to make any move that would bring results. We weren’t allowed to attack.”

At the top, the leadership could not decide how to run the war. Troops were drafted and then kept on hold. “For three weeks after they drafted me, they changed the plan every day, two to three times, and none of the plans was implemented,” Nachmias said.

On top of it all, Bousany said, “We didn’t even have enough bullets.”

In some cases, the reservists were told to hit too hard, said Vadim Kelebeyev, a 29-year-old artillery reservist. He and his fellow soldiers were surprised one day when they got an order to shoot cluster bombs into Lebanon.

“We were shocked,” said Kelebeyev, a Bible teacher from Jerusalem. “We had never used them before — even in training. But that was the order. So we shot them, a lot of them.”

“After the war, Halutz said he didn’t give the order,” he said. “That’s an order that caused me a lot of frustration and anger. I read that it killed a lot of innocent Lebanese. It’s on my conscience. We shot tons of ammunition, and for nothing.”

For many Israelis, however, the most shocking finding in the Winograd report is its description of a policymaking process that lacked any formal structure. For years, strategic decisions had been made by a small group of ministers and generals without any formal process of vetting or staff work. The commission was also troubled by the consistent failure of policymakers to involve the Foreign Ministry in decisions, reflecting a misunderstanding of the nature of war and of its relationship to diplomacy.

As an initial reform, the report calls for the “substantial improvement in the functioning of the National Security Council.” The council was to have been created in 1974, under the findings of the Agranat Commission that investigated the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but it arose only after a 1999 petition to the Supreme Court.

Even then, though, “the government didn’t give the NSC any authority,” Nachmias said. “Almost everyone who headed it has quit. It can’t get a meeting with the prime minister, it doesn’t get access to intelligence and it has few sources of information. It’s just a name. Without changing this, nothing will change.”

Nobody knows the weaknesses of the NSC better than Dayan. He was the council’s first director, stepping into the job in 2000 but leaving in frustration two years later. Right now, though, he is focusing his fire on Olmert and Peretz. In his view, they have to go before anything else can change.

“The commission found the current leadership failed, but the leadership does not want to resign,” Dayan said. “Now the ball falls into the court of the Israel public.”

To pursue that goal, Dayan has retooled his Tafnit (“Turnaround”) social movement into an umbrella group to press for accountability. “I called on Israeli NGOs, student groups, bereaved families of fallen soldiers, people from the North and South who live in conflict zones, and groups fighting corruption, such as the Movement for Quality Government in Israel,” Dayan said.

The mass demonstration he planned for May 3 at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv would just be the beginning, Dayan promised. “Some things take time,” he said. Olmert and Peretz “are fighting for their survival. But I don’t think it will take more than a few months.”

Reservists Kelebeyev, Bousany and Nachmias all planned to be in Tel Aviv for the Thursday protest. “Somebody has to pay for the mistakes of this war,” Kelebeyev said. But they frankly fear that once those leaders are gone, the tougher recommendations will be forgotten.

“It worries me that people are concerned with these three,” Bousany said, referring to Olmert, Peretz and Halutz, “and not deliberating over the problems of the army. I’m afraid there will soon be another war, and we need to be ready.”

Editor’s Note: For an English-language summary of the Winograd report, click here. To download the full report in Hebrew, click here (PDF).


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