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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There was little that was secret about the IDF's firing of MLRS cluster bombs during the Lebanon war. The artillery units were stationed in full view of civilians driving past the launching sites. One of the batteries was even quite near a hotel where hundreds of journalists, Israeli and foreign, were staying throughout the conflict, and they quickly learned to distinguish its staccato burst from the usually single-shot M-109 howitzer. Anyone could see that the MLRS was widely used; you didn't have to be a military expert to realize that entire areas were being saturated with bomblets.
In this context, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz's move this week to investigate why MLRS units disobeyed his orders not to fire cluster munitions towards built-up civilian areas is as close as he has come to admitting failure since the end of the war. If he indeed gave such an order and expected it to be carried out, then there are two inescapable conclusions. First, his orders were blatantly disregarded. And second, he had no idea what the IDF's most advanced tactical artillery units were doing every day during the war right under his nose.
By now, however, it hardly comes as a surprise to learn afresh of Halutz's lapsed control over his army. Officers at all levels are confidently predicting his speedy resignation, his responsibility for senior appointments has effectively been taken away and most of his schedule is taken up in meetings and preparations for meetings with the various investigation and inquiry teams looking into the war's failings. It's hard to begrudge Halutz the short hour of satisfaction he had this week meeting the new cycle of recruits to combat units; they at least accorded him a degree of respect. The reporters, though, ruined it, forcing him yet again to deny that he is about to resign.
Halutz's boss has lost almost every remaining shred of control and respect as well. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has been forbidden by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to talk with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, a humiliation both for the defense minister trying to broker a ceasefire and the Labor party leader hoping to resurrect something of his "man of peace" image. Publicly humiliating Peretz obviously isn't enough; now Olmert's aides are briefing the media that Peretz will have to go. But Olmert isn't going to do it himself, he wants the Labor leadership to force Peretz to relinquish his portfolio. At least one such leader, Labor Secretary General and Minister Eitan Cabel, has already obliged, calling on Peretz to return to his "social agenda" full time.
Just two weeks ago, Peretz felt confident enough to provoke a showdown with Halutz, almost forcing him to resign over the senior appointments. Now, it's 50-50 as to who will leave the Kirya compound in Tel Aviv first.
Amid the rash of finger-pointing that broke out immediately after the war, the leading troika Olmert-Peretz-Halutz held on, covering each other from the firestorm of criticism. For two months, the mutual survival pact seemed to be holding but, gradually, each then began to seek a separate route to higher ground.
Halutz tried to prove he still had control of the IDF and decided on the new appointments of the brigadiers who had commanded the divisions in the war. Peretz thought that blocking the appointments until a clearer picture of the war's failings would prove popular with the public and thus embarked on a collision course with Halutz. Olmert, after bolstering his shaky political position by adding Avigdor Lieberman to the government, decided that the time had come to distance himself from the distinctly unpopular defense duo in the belief that he didn't need their backing anymore and thus hoped to begin rebuilding his own damaged public stature.
For two months all three apparently believed theirs was a "united we stand, divided we fall" scenario. Now, it's a case of last man standing.