Analysis: The prime minister survives again

With one paragraph, Winograd took hale gusts out of any public outcry.

olmert 63 (photo credit: )
olmert 63
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has dodged another bullet. With one brief paragraph, the head of the committee looking into the execution of the Second Lebanon War, retired judge Eliahu Winograd, took the hale gusts out of any public outcry for Olmert's removal. Relating to the decision to initiate a ground operation in the last 60 hours of the war, an operation that cost the lives of 33 soldiers, Winograd said in his statement Wednesday, "The decision to start the ground operation was within the political and professional discretion of its makers, on the basis of the facts before them. The goals of the ground operation were legitimate, and were not exhausted by the wish to hasten or improve the diplomatic achievement. There was no failure in that decision in itself, despite its limited achievements and its painful costs." With those few words Winograd exonerated Olmert and then defense minister Amir Peretz of something that in this society would be tantamount to an unforgivable crime: sending soldiers to their deaths for political considerations, or because of ulterior motives. Sure, the calls will still be heard from those hankering for Olmert's ouster that he must still go as a result of the war, one Winograd described damningly as "a serious missed opportunity" that ended without a "clear military victory." But any hopes that this final report would propel a massive public campaign that would force the hands of the politicians were dashed when Winograd concluded that the decision to embark on the ground campaign was not only reasonable, but almost "inevitable." If the interim Winograd Report last April - a report which used the word failure on a number of occasions to describe the execution of the war - did not lead to such a movement, this more tame report will certainly not have that result. Which doesn't mean Olmert is completely out of the woods. This bullet he dodged, but he still has to contend with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and his promise last year to leave the government after the publication of the full Winograd Report if Olmert did not quit on his own. "The Winograd Report is tough, and obligates personal conclusions," Barak said last June, after the release of the interim report. "Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must draw personal conclusions and resign, as did Dan Halutz and Amir Peretz. If he doesn't do this until the publication of the full report of the Winograd Committee, we will need to end our partnership with Olmert, and work for the establishment of a new government in the current Knesset, or alternatively to work for setting a date for elections." Barak is a politician, and he did not return from his years of self-imposed exile after losing to Ariel Sharon in 2001 to work on Olmert's farm; his ambitions are not fulfilled by serving as defense minister. Rather, he has clearly set his sights on again becoming prime minister himself one day. The question he will obviously be asking himself as he reads the 629-page report is whether disregarding his pledge of eight months ago will harm his chances down the road of maintaining the leadership of his party, and of then winning a national election. Granted, as was already pointed out in the media Wednesday night, Barak - if he disregards his pledge - would not be the first politician to go back on his word. Sharon promised to honor a Likud referendum on disengagement from Gaza in 2004, but then completely ignored it. But Barak is not Sharon - he doesn't have his history, nor the support of the public Sharon had when he turned his back on that Likud vote. The question Barak will have to deal with before revealing to the nation his immediate plans in the next few days is how disregarding his pledge will affect his political future. If he doesn't honor his pledge, that quote will be broadcast ad infinitum in any future election campaign. He has another problem as well. While the country is now unlikely to see the jelling of a mass movement calling for Olmert's resignation, the reservists and bereaved families who have led this charge in recent weeks will surely carry on with their campaign. And these group's represent constituencies that Barak - as the country's most decorated soldier, as a quintessential military man, as the defense minister - is most sensitive to. Justifiably or not, large parts of those constituencies - those willing to fight and die for the country under the ethos of "follow me" and "taking personal responsibility" - felt terribly let down by Olmert and the government which never took collective responsibility for the failures of the war. Following Wednesday's report, they surely felt down by Winograd as well. Their last hope is Barak, and their eyes - as well as their pressure and their efforts - will now be cast heavily on him.