Monday, February 04, 2008

After Winograd

New York Sun Staff Editorial
February 4, 2008

When Prime Minister Olmert heard the press conference presenting the Winograd Commission's long awaited concluding chapters of a report on the political and military management of Israel's war with Hezbollah during the summer of 2006, he told his advisers, the "guillotine has been removed." What he meant was that the report would not force his resignation and he could press on with his talks with the Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Mr. Olmert hopes, in the face of skepticism, to complete, by the fall, an agreement sufficiently attractive to permit him to call new elections that would essentially be a referendum on the agreement. What the commission was thinking in setting up this situation is a bit opaque. It argued that the major problem identified was "structural and systemic malfunctioning." It tries to have it both ways, however, asserting: "The fact we refrained from imposing personal responsibility does not imply that no such responsibility exists." It shied away from the severe indictment that critics had hoped for in respect of the ground offensive the government ordered in the waning days of the fighting. The view that the war underscored the deeper roots of the army's malfunction and the indecision among the political leadership has the political effect of silencing many of Mr. Olmert's potential critics and rivals jockeying for advantage.

The leader of the Labor Party, Prime Minister Barak, announced that he would not honor an earlier pledge to quit the coalition, where he now serves as defense minister. The Knesset math — or calculus — is that if Labor quits its partnership with Mr. Olmert's Kadima party, the government will fall and new elections will be scheduled. Most recent polls indicate that the Likud, lead by Prime Minister Netanyahu, would win a plurality and form the next government, with different views on what policy to pursue with regards to the Palestinians. Only in Israel is the political fray between three prime ministers, even if two are out of the job at the moment.

Of the three, only Mr. Barak is covered with glory in military terms, even if he lost his mandate as prime minister because voters saw him as over-accommodating of the Arabs. As regards the still-controversial ground operation the Olmert cabinet authorized so late in the war, the report indicates that, in the first case, the Prime Minister ... had preferred to avoid the ground operation" as opposed to the Minister of Defense "who had thought it would have served Israel's interest to go for it." In any event both positions were "taken on the merits and on the basis of evidence. Both enjoyed serious support among the members of the general staff of the IDF and others."

Allowing that the ground offensive that did occur may have strengthened Israel's diplomatic hand at the United Nations Security Council, where a cease fire resolution was being crafted, the Commission had harsh words for the decision. "After a long period of using only standoff fire power and limited ground activities, Israel initiated a large scale ground offensive, very close to the Security Council resolution imposing a cease fire. This offensive did not result in military gains and was not completed."

The report was critical of the initial decision to ratchet up the military response to Hezbollah's provocation, as well as of the Israeli leadership's failure to choose between the only two alternative strategies before them: "a short, painful, strong and unexpected blow on Hezbollah, primarily through standoff fire-power," and "bring[ing] about a significant change of the reality in the South of Lebanon with a large ground operation, including a temporary occupation of the South of Lebanon and 'cleaning' it of Hezbollah military infrastructure." The report states that the "equivocation" between these two strategies continued, to Israel's detriment.

The absence of victory in Lebanon was a result of "flawed conduct of the political and the military echelons and the interface between them, of flawed performance by the IDF, and especially the ground forces, and of deficient Israeli preparedness." Reflecting obvious internal divisions among its members, the Commission could not make up its mind about the diplomatic results, observing that "Israel did not gain a political achievement because of military successes; rather, it relied on a political agreement, which included positive elements for Israel, which permitted it to stop a war which it had failed to win."

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In the wake of the report, Mr. Netanyahu has called on Mr. Olmert to resign, and polls indicate the public favors this course. The same polls, however, show that asked to identify Israel's worst prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu comes in second to last just ahead of Mr. Barak. Mr. Olmert is therefore currently blessed by the regard paid to his two major rivals. Mr. Netanyahu is trying to make the best out of what looks like a missed opportunity. He told reporters that the failure to win in Lebanon was worse than imagined because Israel had begun the war with unprecedented "national and international support, including from the opposition." If that sounds like the Democrats here criticizing a certain George W. Bush for squandering the good will of the world after September 11, 2001, well, we can only offer the thought that our own election, too, is difficult to predict and may well depend on events in a war that is bigger than any of us.

February 4, 2008 Edition > Section: Editorials

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