Reservists' probe protests sag

Movement for Quality Government demands state commission of inquiry.

Scores of reservists demonstrated outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem over the government's handling of the war in Lebanon for the eighth straight day on Sunday, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delayed a decision on the nature of the commission of inquiry he plans to launch. Olmert was expected to bring his decision to the cabinet on Sunday, but the issue was not discussed in the government meeting. Cabinet sources said that the ministers did not demand a discussion on the matter, even though it has been a prominent feature of the post-war protest and debate in the country. The protest movement appeared to begin to sag as it entered its second week, with only several dozen protesters taking to the streets. The low-level demonstrations have been encumbered by a split between the reservists calling for the outright resignation of the country's wartime leaders, and a separate protest by members of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel who are demanding the establishment of a state commission of inquiry. Despite their different goals, both groups were united Sunday in their dismay over the government's decision not to discuss the war probe at the government's weekly cabinet meeting. "We will do everything in our power to see to it that a state commission of inquiry is launched," said Eliad Shraga, the chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. He noted that the group was planning to escalate its protest activity nationwide, with the group mulling a mass weekend demonstration in Tel Aviv. "They are trying to play with time in the hope that the public will calm down and forget what has happened," concurred Col. (res.) Amnon Nachmias, "but it will not help them as we will not rest until a state commission of inquiry is launched." Olmert is weighing whether to launch an internal government inquiry, or to appoint a more powerful external state commission of inquiry. The former is certain to be more amenable to the government but is likely to be viewed by the public as a whitewash, while the latter would greatly alleviate the public pressure on the government but with its sweeping independent powers to dismiss government and military officials could cause them immense damage down the road. One of Olmert's close aides said Sunday, "anyone with eyes in their head" can see that it should not be a state commission of inquiry with wide statutory powers because that type of investigation would preoccupy the government and the army at a time when their energy should be focused on preparing for the next war. Deputy Premier Shimon Peres alluded to as much Sunday, telling a World Jewish Congress gathering in Jerusalem that now was the time for Israel to focus on the future, and that "the past will not run away." Meanwhile, the protesters, who were matched by an equal number of policemen, decried the government's decision not to take up the issue at the cabinet meeting. "We have been standing here after a month on the front lines and after a week in the sun in the Wohl Rose Garden and the government ministers who zip by in their bulletproof vehicles behind drawn curtains and darkened windows do not even bother to get out and look in the eyes of the soldiers who they sent to war," said reservist Baruch Eitem. "You took command, take responsibility," placards in the protest read. Four members of the Movement for Quality Government, which set up a protest tent across from the High Court of Justice, announced Sunday that they were starting a hunger strike until a state commission of inquiry into the war in Lebanon was established. Those striking included movement head Eliad Shraga, David Darash, and reservists Col. (res.) Amnon Nehemias and Lt.-Col. (res.) Yehiel Gilo. The movement said they were holding the hunger strike because of the "contempt of the government," which "did not even discuss the possibility of setting up a state commission of inquiry." Meanwhile, a small group of former prisoners of war also demonstrated outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem for the release of the three soldiers kidnapped earlier this summer. "We are here so that the issue of the soldiers is not removed from the forefront of the public debate," said Natan Margalit, who was taken prisoner by the Egyptians during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. "We experienced ourselves what it means to be a prisoner, what it means to be humiliated and what it means to be disconnected from one's family." Herb Keinon contributed to this report.