Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Olmert's Own Doing

January 29, 2008
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/70331

As far as Prime Minister Olmert is concerned, late is not better than never. Tomorrow will bring, at long last, the release of the final report of the Winograd Commission, appointed to investigate the government and army's conduct of Israel's war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. This is not a day that Mr. Olmert has been looking forward to. No one thinks that the prime minister, who had been in office for only a few months when he ordered Israel's army into Lebanon, will look good in the report. The only question is how bad he will look. If moderately bad, he will probably weather the storm. If very bad, he may not.

In a way, this seems unfair to him. After all, the 2007 war was not, in the final analysis, a disaster for Israel. Any objective account of it would have to conclude that its results were mixed.

On the credit side, the Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, though not routed, were badly mauled. A clear message was sent to them that there was a limit to Israel's willingness to show restraint in the face of provocations. Lebanon itself suffered extensive damage and was made to realize that it could not let Hezbollah attack Israel with impunity. A new United Nations force with a stronger mandate than the old one was put in place in the Lebanese south. Israel's border with Lebanon, previously the site of frequent flare-ups, has been quiet since then.

On the debit side, on the other hand, the army performed unimpressively. It had great difficulty ousting from their fortified positions Hezbollah forces that were greatly inferior in weaponry and numbers. It was to the very end unable to stop Hezbollah's massive firing of rockets into Israel. The two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the hostilities were never freed and are captives to this day. And there were substantial casualties: 43 civilians and 117 Israeli soldiers killed, many of the letter in the final 60 hours of fighting, when a full-scale ground operation against Hezbollah forces south of the Litani River was launched.

These last 60 hours, during which an Israeli tank brigade was ambushed with heavy losses, have gradually moved to the center of the public debate over Mr. Olmert's conduct during the war and its aftermath. Three main charges have been leveled against him. The first is that he let the army proceed with the ground operation even though it was strategically pointless, since U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which mandated a ceasefire along lines acceptable to Israel, had already been agreed on, thus obviating the need for military conquest of an area that Israel would just evacuate in the end anyway.

The second charge against the prime minister is that, having ordered the army to launch the attack, he then gave in to American pressure and limited the campaign to 60 hours, even though his generals had told him that they needed a minimum of 96 to reach the Litani. Because of these time restraints, it is said, precipitous assaults were mounted for which the army paid dearly without attaining its military objectives.

Thirdly, Mr. Olmert has been accused of deliberately misrepresenting the facts to the public and the Winograd Commission after the war by claiming that the 60-hour push was a necessary form of international pressure to get Resolution 1701 tailored to Israel's needs, when in fact the resolution had already been approved. In reality, it is charged, the prime minister knew the operation was dispensable but declined to call it off because the army wanted a last-minute victory to restore its hurt pride and refurbish its public image.

Whether the commission will endorse these accusations remains to be seen. Yet the first two of them, it must be said, reflect worse on the army than they do on Mr. Olmert. It was the army, after all, that assured the prime minister that the ground operation would be a military success and that opted to go ahead with it even when limited to 60 hours instead of telling Mr. Olmert that this was not enough time. In retrospect, his mistake was to have yielded to it, even though the indications are that he did so reluctantly and against his better judgment.

And yet what else, it might be asked in his defense, could he have been expected to do under the circumstances? He was not a military expert himself — and to make matters worse, his minister of defense, former Labor party leader Amir Peretz, was not one either and enthusiastically seconded all the army's arguments. Who can fault Mr. Olmert for listening to his generals' promise of a knockout blow against Hezbollah just before the final bell?

Perhaps no one. But the fact that he did not have a knowledgeable minister of defense by his side to serve as a civilian counterweight to the military and overrule it if necessary, and that in the coalition negotiations following his May 2006 electoral victory he made the political decision to give Mr. Peretz a post for which he was supremely unqualified, was his fault.

Had this post been the ministry of transportation or tourism, it would hardly have mattered. But to put Mr. Peretz in charge of Israel's army when he hadn't the foggiest notion of military affairs was, it was to turn out only a few months later, a gross and light-headed blunder.

For the cavalierness of that decision, his worst as prime minister, Mr. Olmert deserves to be held today to the strictest of accounts. If he had no one but his generals to listen to in the summer of 2006, this was entirely his own doing.

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