(photo credit: )
The Winograd Commission - the committee appointed to investigate the management of the war in Lebanon - will begin its proceedings on Monday, Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon said on Sunday.
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"The commission has been asked to submit their report as quickly as possible," Maimon told Army Radio. "After talking with the members of the commission, I believe they understand the need for urgency."
The government approved on Sunday the appointment of the commission by a landslide vote of 20 - 2 with one abstention and one absentee.
The committee, which will be chaired by retired Tel Aviv District Court judge Eliahu Winograd and comprised of Prof. Ruth Gavison, Prof. Yehezkel Dror, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Menahem Einan and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Haim Nadel, received the support it needed after Defense Minister Amir Peretz caved into pressure from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to vote in favor.
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Minutes after the vote, Olmert expressed harsh criticism towards Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz and former IDF Chief of General Staff, Lt. -Gen. (ret.) Moshe Ya'alon following interviews the two had given last week.
"It is a shame that (Ya'alon) is dragging families in mourning - who lost what is dearest to them - into the argument. It is a pity that the families are being used to settle personal disputes," Olmert said in response to Ya'alon's comments on the countless deaths of IDF soldiers over the course of the war in Lebanon.
Olmert continued, saying that he did not "understand how one dared to tell dozens of families that their sons were lost for the sake of a "photo opportunity", even before a committee had examined all the facts."
Despite the cabinet's support for the commission, the Likud declared that the approval of the Winograd commission of inquiry was yet "another proof that the government is disconnected from the Israeli public."
"We are calling for the unconditional establishment of a state commission of inquiry, whose members are appointed according to law by the president of the supreme court," they added.
MK Gilad Erdan (Likud) responded to the vote by saying that "apparently the prime minister is afraid of an independent commission of inquiry, and is therefore doing everything so that one won't be established - and the one that he set up has not even set a schedule for presenting mid-level conclusions."
Erdan added that "despite the prime minister's spins and deceptions, we can't forget that this is a committee in which the one being investigated chooses who will investigate him, and it's in his power to restrict the publication of some of the findings."
Meretz head MK Yossi Beilin also had harsh words for the decision, saying that "the Olmert government's march of foolishness has led it to the stupidest decision it could have made."
Beilin said that "on the one hand, it includes all the disadvantages that Olmert apparently voted for when he opposed a real inquiry commission, and on the other hand, it will never have all the authority that a state inquiry commission appointed by the supreme court president could have had."
The only ministers in the cabinet who opposed the committee's appointment in Sunday's vote, however, were Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines and Minister-without-Portfolio Eitan Cabel, both of Labor.
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz of Kadima abstained, and Education Minister Yuli Tamir of Labor was abroad.
At the start of the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that the Winograd Commission would be given the same authority as a state commission.
"It is the government's intention to invest the committee with all the powers of a state inquiry commission, as required by law and according to the decision of the justice minister," he said.
"I hope the committee will complete its task as quickly as possible and help the State of Israel better prepare itself for the challenges that await us," Olmert said.
Despite Olmert's declaration, however, several protests were taking place across from the prime minister's office, demanding nothing less than a state inquiry commission.
The protesters, comprising reservists and members of the Movement for Quality Government, brought donkeys and sheep to the demonstration, while members of a separate protest bore large effigies of Olmert, Peretz, and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, whom most demonstrators have been pressuring to resign for the last month.
Peretz's announcement two weeks ago that he favored a state commission of inquiry led to a deterioration in his relations with Olmert.
The relationship worsened last week when Peretz abstained during the cabinet on the 2007 state budget after making Olmert wait three hours for him to come to the Prime Minister's Office to vote.
A spokeswoman for Peretz said that he had not made a final decision on the Winograd Commission but that he was leaning toward voting in favor, because Olmert had agreed to his demands for the panel to be headed by a judge, have the power to grant immunity to witnesses and investigate both the government and the military.
But a source close to Peretz said the real reason Peretz would vote in favor was because he wanted to reconcile with Olmert.
Perhaps signaling a desire by Olmert to patch things up as well, the prime minister sent Peretz's associates messages over the weekend indicating that he would not add right-wing parties to the coalition if Peretz's behavior improved.
Officials in Olmert's office said he had no intention of giving in to the calls for a full-blown state commission of inquiry.
"Olmert is sure that this type of inquiry will provide a full, frank and fast picture, and doesn't think there is a need for anything else," the officials said.
The cabinet's decision comes three weeks after Olmert announced the establishment of three lower-level committees to probe the conduct of the war. He was forced to change his proposal as more and more people, including ministers in his own party and within the coalition, including Peretz, called for a state commission of inquiry.
Labor MKs Paz-Pines and Cabel were among those voicing their opposition to the proposed government commission.
"I was the first one to back a state commission of inquiry and I am more convinced than ever that it is necessary," Cabel said on Saturday night. "It's still a problem that we in the government are appointing a committee that is investigating ourselves. The only way to restore the public's faith in the government is to form a state commission of inquiry."
On Friday, Paz-Pines told Labor Party activists at a Rosh Hashana toast that he supported the formation of a state commission headed by Aharon Barak, who stepped down as Supreme Court president on Thursday.
Slamming Peretz for his abstention on the budget, Paz-Pines said that all Labor ministers should have vote in favor. In a show of support for Paz-Pines, who is expected to challenge Peretz for the Labor leadership, more than 500 Labor activists attended the event, including former prime minister Ehud Barak, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Herzog.
Kadima MKs expressed concern that the Labor leadership race would cause instability in the coalition.
"We have no interest in Labor Party primaries right now, because it might cause a domino effect that would throw the whole system into chaos," said one high-ranking Kadima member. "We are not stable enough right now for that type of chaos."
The MKs added that when Kadima was "good and ready," they would push Labor toward a primary by withdrawing their support for Peretz.
"There is not much keeping Peretz in office right now except his relationship with Olmert," MK Avishay Braverman (Labor) said. "But the prime minister's support can't last forever." Braverman and MK Ami Ayalon, also of Labor, have been plotting a rebellion against Peretz for several months. Top political operators such as pollster Stanley Greenberg, whose clients include Peretz and former US president Bill Clinton, have met with Ayalon, according to officials close to the lawmaker.
According to one Labor minister's count, "barely a handful" of Labor MKs would remain loyal to Peretz in a primary.
"Right now, he has practically no one by his side," said the minister, who has not yet decided in which camp he falls. "But in an election he would likely win back a few."
That minister named Tamir, Cabel and MK Ephraim Sneh as likely to ally themselves with Peretz.
"There is a sense that the Peretz camp is a sinking ship. It doesn't bode well that, after a war, people in his own party, especially people with security backgrounds, criticize him," said one MK.
Labor MKs Danny Yatom, Matan Vilna'i and Ayalon all held high-ranking positions in the security establishment entering politics.
Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report