PM expected to survive Winograd report

Ministers Barak, Mofaz leaning against leaving gov't; Hizbullah: Report is proof of Israel's defeat.

olmert face 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert face 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to survive the political fallout following Wednesday's publication of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War, as his political opponents have admitted that the report is too mild to force him to quit. Olmert's associates, who had feared a tongue-lashing from retired judge Eliahu Winograd at his Jerusalem press conference, said they had breathed a sigh of relief when he had announced that the committee believed Olmert had genuinely acted out of concern for the national interest during the controversial final 60 hours of the war. Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel said after the report was released that the Prime Minister's Office was reading it carefully. "Nobody is celebrating," he said. One official in Olmert's office accused political rivals of "defaming" Olmert over the last 18 months by saying he had launched the final ground operation out of political motives. "This has now been seen as a lie," the official said. The official praised the committee for being able to discern "gray areas" in the decision-making process. "People often think things are black or white, right or wrong. But things are not usually that clear-cut." Olmert's office put out a statement saying the prime minister was reading the report and intended to "thoroughly study its contents and the recommendations." The statement said Olmert viewed the committee's Final Report with "utmost gravity," as he did the Interim Report released last April. It said the full cabinet, as well as a ministerial committee set up to monitor implementation of the Interim Report's recommendations, would "begin a series of discussions soon on the conclusions stemming from the Final Report." The statement also took pains to embrace the IDF, which came under harsh criticism in the document. "It should be emphasized that the prime minister has complete confidence in the IDF and in the abilities of its commanders and officers," the statement read. "The IDF will continue to train, improve and strengthen [itself] in order to be prepared for any challenge or mission." Olmert received the report from the Winograd Committee together with Defense Minister Ehud Barak an hour before it was released to the public, and then took it into his office to review with his top aides: Yehezkel, director-general Ra'anan Dinur, chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz, foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman and media adviser Ya'acov Galanti. After Winograd read his statement to the press, Olmert went home to be with his family and read the report. Sources in Olmert's office said there have been no changes in his schedule for Thursday as a result of the report, and that he would - as usual - spend much of the day in security-related meetings in his Tel Aviv office. Olmert, Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are not expected to formally respond to the report until next week. Barak told confidants that the report was "mellow." But he also said he was concerned about its severe criticism of the IDF's inadequate preparedness and performance and the inadequate decision-making at the political level. Sources close to Barak said it was unlikely that he would honor the promise he made when running for Labor leader last year that as soon as the report came out, Labor would "end its partnership with Olmert and work to establish a new government in the current Knesset, or alternatively, to set a date for elections." "He will find it extremely difficult to demand Olmert's resignation based on this report," a source close to Barak said. "This is not a report that justifies bringing down the government. I can't see him leaving the government or demanding Olmert's resignation." Another Barak confidant who spoke to him Wednesday night said the report was "not as harsh as we thought it would be," and added that Barak would likely give a series of principled reasons for remaining in the government in a press conference as early as Sunday. Barak canceled Labor's weekly Thursday ministerial meeting. Barak's spokesman said he would not make a final decision about what to do until after he had read the report. He asked the public not to believe any statements from people claiming to be Barak's "close associates." Livni and Mofaz were seen as unlikely to take any political action following the report, despite their past altercations with Olmert. The only Kadima MKs who called for Olmert to quit after the report were Avigdor Yitzhaki and Marina Solodkin. Yitzhaki said that if Barak did not quit the government, he would quit the Knesset. "Chances of toppling Olmert don't look good now," Yitzhaki said. "But Olmert has clearly been indicted. We will wait for Barak to make up his mind, but if he doesn't take action against the prime minister, then we won't be able to, either." Barak will also face pressure to leave the government from four Labor MKs, who are expected to host a rally on Friday in which they will demand that Barak keep his promise. MK Ophir Paz-Pines said Barak needed to prove himself a leader and not fear elections. "The report released by this committee may have been mild, but there is no doubt that this report must result in Olmert's resignation," Paz-Pines said. "The most damaging result of this war was the loss of confidence between the public and the political establishment. This... deficiency can only be fixed by Olmert taking responsibility and resigning." The one Labor MK who was overjoyed by the report was former defense minister Amir Peretz, who said he was satisfied with Winograd's positive comments about him. Peretz called a press conference for Thursday, in which he is expected to denounce his critics for wrongly charging him with mistakes in the war. Olmert's associates also demanded an apology from his critics, singling out Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu and former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon, whom they accused of character assassination. "The prime minister has endured a blood libel from the leader of the opposition and a former IDF chief of General Staff, who accused him of sacrificing 33 lives for his own political gain," Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Channel 2, referring to the soldiers who died in the last 60 hours of the war. Netanyahu's spokesman responded by denouncing the "shameful and deceitful spin campaign against Netanyahu, who voluntarily served the country in the war by helping lead Israel's public relations campaign in the foreign press." Netanyahu called a Likud faction meeting for Thursday to respond personally to the charges and the report. Channel 2 broadcast a Smith Associates poll that found that 56 percent of Israelis want Olmert to resign due to the report and 27% believe he did not have to quit. Regarding Barak, 45% thing he should quit and 41% that he should not. In the Knesset, the report's release had little effect on the messages that MKs have been issuing for the past several months - while members of the opposition pointed to the report as further evidence that Olmert must leave office, coalition MKs felt that the premier was vindicated by the report. The opposition's attempts to place blame for the war squarely on Olmert's shoulders had "been crushed" by the final report, said Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham. "The opposition must apologize to the public, the prime minister and the bereaved families," said Avraham. The Likud party, however, showed no interest in issuing an apology - instead reiterating their calls for Olmert to resign due to failings in the war. On Thursday, the party will send a moving van to the Prime Minister's Residence, said a Likud spokeswoman, "to emphasize the point that Olmert must pack up and move out." "Olmert must accept personal responsibility and resign. Barak, who promised to leave the government upon the publication of the final report, should keep his promise. If the defense minister searched for an excuse in the report not to resign, he did not find one," said Likud faction whip Gideon Sa'ar. Olmert will go down in history as Israel's worst leader, said MK Arye Eldad (National Union-National Religious Party). "The sentence has been given, and Israel's citizens will settle the account with the government's marionettes; [the public] could consider allowing a failed leader lacking judgment to continue to lead Israel," Eldad said. The Meretz party, which has recently considered joining the government to help advance the peace process, called for Olmert's resignation, but suggested that an alternative government should be put into place without subjecting the public to another national election. "If the prime minister understands that he bears personal responsibility, the only conclusion is not that he is the only one who can amend his mistakes, but that he must resign," said Meretz head Yossi Beilin. Meretz faction whip Zehava Gal-On, who released an alternative report on the Second Lebanon War earlier this week, said the public could draw "no other conclusion but that their prime minister was irresponsible and did not deserve to be in power." "The committee revealed the political and military echelon's great lying culture and its irresponsibility in launching the war. It would be irresponsible to let Olmert stay in office. The political system must form an alternative government and send Olmert home," she said. MK Taleb a-Sanaa (United Arab List) said that while Olmert had launched a "criminal" and unnecessary war with Lebanon, he could redeem himself by advancing the peace process with the Palestinians. Hizbullah was quick to respond to the publication of the Winograd Report, saying that it was proof of Israel's failure during the Second Lebanon War. "The report confirms what was known by Hizbullah for a long time: Israel completely failed in achieving its goals, and the Israeli military suffered a defeat," Agence France Presse quoted the group as saying.