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Shabtai Shavit, the former Mossad chief and chairman of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, opened the session on lessons of the Lebanon war at the institute's annual conference Monday with a diatribe on the behavior of the media, which he said, had "transformed the reality of the war into virtuality."
Shavit expressed envy at the way Britain had dealt with the press contingent who were supposed to cover the Falklands War, dispatching them on a special ship that arrived at the disputed island after the fighting was over.
I was mildly surprised that he chose to focus most of his criticism in that direction. But the next speaker, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, until recently former commander of the IDF Intelligence Research Division, surprised me even more with a lecture that contained very little, if any, information that would have been news to an average Israeli newspaper reader. That was the impression that I got from some of the other speakers at the session - not all of them, and I didn't hear all of them - but it was hard to escape the feeling that many of them were only telling part of the story, and their decision about whom to blame was highly selective.
Kuperwasser's message was that everything was fine. Military intelligence knew exactly what Hizbullah was up to and had foreseen all its plans. His motive was clear; he left his job only a few months ago and any criticism leveled at the intelligence picture that the IDF had at the beginning of the war was directed at him. Now he's busy trying to get across his version.
But it's not only senior officers who retired from service only recently. Those who have been civilians for over a decade also have ulterior motives. Organizations like the IDF and Mossad have deeply ingrained philosophies and practices that develop over many years. Today's outcome might well be a result of processes started by long gone generals and old soldiers, like Uri Saguy and Yoram Yair, who were a bit more free with their criticism yesterday. They are still smarting from being forced to retire over a decade ago - neither of them have had many positive things to say about the IDF since their departure. Every ex-general also has a number of former proteges and rivals still in the service who could well cloud his judgment.
The ongoing saga of the war commission won't come to an end whenever the cabinet finally authorizes the commission's membership and its mandate. At the beginning of this week, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz threw a bombshell by saying that only a national commission of inquiry, not a government committee, could do the job. Sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert retaliated that Mofaz, a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff, would be the first person to be called for a reckoning in front of such a commission. But if that were true, surely Mofaz would be the last person to demand its formation. Of course, Mofaz might just be using the demand to lay out his personal political challenge to Olmert, knowing there is a majority against a national commission in the cabinet. But this latest addition underscored how it is almost impossible to find someone capable of delivering a balanced judgment on the war's failures.
If one of the most respected former generals in the country, David Ivri, a man who lost his pilot son in a flying accident, could be disqualified from participating in the committee, because of the suspicion that - as a representative of Boeing, manufacturers of F-15 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters in Israel - his conclusions might be skewed, then anyone is suspect.
In a last moment development, former Mossad chief Nahum Admoni was demoted from chairman of the committee to mere member despite the attorney-general's ruling that the fact that his wife had been appointed to a string of positions by Olmert didn't present a conflict of interest. Was this decision due to the cloud of suspicion surrounding the Admoni family's interests, or was the appointment of former justice Eliahu Winograd as the new chairman done to give the committee the semblance of a national commission, which by law, is headed by a judge?
But why should we assume that Winograd is any better than an ex-general? He also lives in this country, has served in the army, and has friends and relatives who might be effected by the committee's conclusions. Winograd headed a committee that reviewed the intelligence available on missing-in-action airman Ron Arad. The committee concluded there was no reason to believe that Arad was dead, and its main report remains secret. Perhaps there is something there that influenced Israeli policy towards Lebanon, the country where Arad disappeared? Maybe then Winograd shouldn't be the guy leading the committee. This is of course getting absurd.
But a month after the war ended, one inescapable conclusion should be that whatever the commission is eventually called and whoever its members are, expectations ought to be realistic.
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