Israeli De Gaulle Needed (Extract)

Does the Winograd Report reflect a nation in decline, or a vibrant self-critical society with inherent powers of self-correction and regeneration?

23les (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, looking tired and speaking softly to a packed Knesset plenum, defended his performance in the Second Lebanon War, there was one conspicuous absentee: Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor party, Olmert's chief coalition partner, deliberately stayed away from the highly charged early February debate on the findings of the commission of inquiry, set up to examine the conduct of the war that was fought in the summer of 2006. The day before, Barak had announced that despite the harsh findings on the government's and the army's failings and shortcomings by the commission chaired by retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd, Labor would remain in the coalition. But by staying away from the Knesset, he was signaling the beginning of a campaign from within the government to undermine Olmert's hold on power and bring about an early election at a date of his choosing. Olmert told the Knesset that he took "full responsibility" for the wartime failures and that he intended "to use that responsibility to make the necessary changes." The leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud, retorted that "if the term responsibility had any meaning," Olmert should resign. Parents of soldiers killed in the war heckled the prime minister from the gallery, and walked out in solidarity when one of their number was ejected during Olmert's speech. Barak later called the speech "cynical" and "Orwellian," and said it would have been better left unmade. Nevertheless, despite four Labor nays and two from his own Kadima party, Olmert won the Knesset vote on his statement by 59-53. The Knesset vote encapsulated the post-Winograd political situation. First and foremost, it showed that the opposition drive to unseat Olmert, and the grass-roots protest movement were running out of steam. But it also heralded the start of a potentially explosive new race for national leadership, in which Olmert's main rivals, Barak, Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima, will keep on using the commission findings to embarrass him. Although it does not call on Olmert or anyone else to resign, the final 617-page Winograd Report, released on January 30, declares that "the fact that we refrained from imposing personal responsibility does not imply that no such responsibility exists." And it pulls no punches. It says the government did not consider other alternatives in deciding to go to war on July 12, 2006, after a cross-border incident in which Hizballah militiamen kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three more; it had no exit strategy and no clearly defined war aims; it was unsure whether it wanted a short, sharp air-strike or a full-scale war with a major ground operation; when it was drawn into full-scale war, it dithered about committing the ground forces; and when it finally did, it was a case of too little too late. On the strategic level, the report says, the war was a "serious missed opportunity." Properly waged, it could have radically changed the situation in Lebanon and had a deterrent effect on all Israel's foes, from Gaza to Tehran. But the fact that the IDF proved unable to keep Hizballah from firing missiles at Israeli civilians for 34 days only encouraged Hamas in Gaza to employ rocket power in the same way. The commission also points to a string of systemic failures: a lack of strategic thinking; an unprofessional decision-making process; a wrongheaded military doctrine and poor interface between the top political and military echelons. That the commission chose not to spell out "personal responsibility" probably saved Olmert his job. In a post-Winograd briefing to foreign journalists, panel member Prof. Yehezkel Dror, a Hebrew University political scientist, explained that the commission took the view that "it was not its job to decide the national leadership," something that should be left to the regular democratic processes. In fact, the commission had no option. Following petitions by lawyers for the politicians and the generals who thought they might be affected, the Supreme Court gave it the choice of sending warning letters to people who could be compromised by its findings or not attaching personal blame. The commission, in order to avoid lengthy legal proceedings that could have delayed release of its findings for months if not years, decided on the latter course. Olmert was also helped by a major tactical error by the anti-government protesters. Like the protest movement after the 1973 Yom Kippur War they emulated, the reserve soldiers and bereaved parents had hoped to sweep the prime minister from power. But they focused their entire campaign against Olmert on the last 60 hours of the war, arguing that he ordered the final ground operation, in which 33 soldiers were killed, for self-serving political reasons. But the commission found that although the operation did not achieve its goals, Olmert had acted reasonably and in good faith. With the report behind him, and the opposition neutralized, the key to Olmert's political survival lay with Barak, who joined the cabinet after the war and was not tainted by its failings or the army's poor performance. According to Labor party insiders, he had expected a more overt condemnation of Olmert's wartime performance and had planned to move with Livni to unseat the prime minister, with Livni taking over as premier and setting a date for new elections sometime in the first half of 2009. Olmert's "acquittal" on the charges of self-serving conduct dashed their plans. Instead, Barak's "plan B" seems to be to stay on in government, while sniping at Olmert and strengthening his own leadership credentials before bolting the coalition as soon as he feels he can win an election. The defense minister gave an inkling of his new thinking at a meeting of the Labor Knesset faction the day after the Winograd Report was released. "It is a severe report, with personal and normative implications and conclusions that are not simple [against Olmert]. We will discuss them at an appropriate time and set a date for new elections," he declared. Barak's strategy raises questions about the government's future functioning. Will the prime minister and the defense minister be able to work together while constantly trying to score political points off each other? Labor Party Secretary General Eitan Cabel is sure that they will. Cabel, the only government minister to resign in the wake of the preliminary Winograd Report released last April, says people should not pay too much attention to Barak's barbs against the prime minister. "I am not enamored of this government, and personally I would be glad to see it fall. But I think Barak and Olmert will find a way to work together and the government will last much longer than people think," he told The Report. For Cabel, Olmert has long since lost the moral authority to continue as leader. But he sees no Knesset constellation to topple the prime minister emerging any time soon. And he should know. One of the four Labor Knesset members who voted against Olmert in the Knesset debate, Cabel acknowledges that their mini-mutiny is over. "The Winograd affair is finished and there is no need for us to go on working as a dissident group within the faction," he declares. There is no immediate rebellion brewing in Olmert's Kadima Knesset delegation either. Unlike the abortive machinations to force Olmert to give way to Livni after the preliminary report, there is now almost wall-to-wall support in the faction for the prime minister. Indeed, after the preliminary report singled him out for special blame, Olmert moved quickly to nip an incipient party insurgency in the bud by finding jobs for potential malcontents: Majali Wahabe is now deputy foreign minister, David Tal is chairman of the Knesset's House Committee, Eli Aflalo is coalition chairman and Ruhama Avraham-Balila is minister without portfolio, responsible for the overall planning of Israel's upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations. Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.