A mediocracy. That's what we're living in. And don't take my word for it. In fact it's not my word at all. It was coined for me this week by, of all people, a serving member of the Israeli cabinet. He should know. He spoke to me, off the record and in tones approaching despair, of a rotten leadership culture - emblemized by a president under investigation for sexual harassment, a minister resigned amid charges of the same, and the swirl of corruption at every level. He heaped criticism on the rotten management of the war - though notably sparing himself and some ministerial colleagues. He derided a former defense minister's mishandling of army priorities and logistics. And he was witheringly critical of the current chief of the General Staff, Dan Halutz, whose war plan, he asserted, had centered around the idea of wreaking wholesale destruction in Lebanon - the one thing that the leaders of the G-8, with whom Olmert spoke, he said, on the critical first weekend of war, begged Israel not to do. "And we didn't," he stressed. "We blew up the bridges and access routes, not the civilian infrastructure." He listed tactical intelligence failures so basic as to be almost inconceivable - confirming, for instance, the blindness that confounded the IDF immediately across the Lebanon border. It was, he said, "a miracle" that Israel didn't send columns of ground forces into Lebanon in those early days of fighting, because we'd had no idea of the extent to which Hizbullah had booby-trapped the roads and paths with massive explosive devices - the very kind that blew apart the first tank that crossed in pursuit of the original kidnappers on that first fateful Wednesday. And his were some of the milder criticisms I heard this week. SPEAKING EMPHATICALLY on the record, ex-deputy chief of General Staff Matan Vilna'i, a former minister himself and now a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, described a horrifying disconnect between politicians and the army - twin hierarchies operating in something untenably approaching isolation. The entire "model for strategic decision making in Israel" simply doesn't work, he charged, and never has done. "Decisions are whipped out, the whole picture is not examined, and this war is a case in point." In the second Lebanon War, Vilna'i asserted, Israel's conflict with Hizbullah had somehow shifted from "an operation" (the forceful initial response to the cross-border attack on July 12) to "a war" (weeks of air strikes and ground force confusion as the rockets fell in the North by the thousands), without anybody in leadership properly debating the transformation. The initial reliance on air power had gradually given way to an attempt to use elite units to tackle Hizbullah, before it was eventually realized "that a critical mass of ground force was needed. [But] I don't think that there was a single serious discussion on this issue at the decision-making echelon," said Vilna'i. "Who decided that we were going to war? In my opinion, no one." Such fuzziness about what exactly Israel was doing in Lebanon, according to a third interviewee, also a former cabinet minister, lies at the heart of the disconnect between the prime minister, adamant this week that "Hizbullah has been beaten," and his critics, including a substantial proportion of the public, who carry the strong sense that our most dangerous enemies have been emboldened. This third critic, an immensely savvy now-ex politician, agreed with Olmert that Israel and its current government can claim significant achievements from the war. Certainly, as Olmert highlighted in his speech to local authority chiefs on Monday, Israel shattered the notion that it is not prepared to fight: A border incursion of the kind that had gone unpunished in the past triggered an unexpectedly fierce Israeli response. Certainly, Hizbullah has been pushed back from the border. Certainly the home front stood firm, and disproved the notion that Israel could not tolerate sustained rocket attack on its citizenry. The final consequences of the war for the Israel-Lebanon dynamic, what's more, are still unclear; much will depend on how resolute the international force proves to be, on the ultimate sense among Lebanese about who is to blame for the fate of their country, and on their ability, or otherwise, to assert their own will in the governance of their country. But, said this ex-pol, the deterrent power that was regained in those first days of fighting - when Israel, again, as Olmert rightly pointed out, destroyed most of the enemy's long-range missile capability and many of its command strongholds - was lost as the fighting continued and it became ever more damagingly and humiliatingly clear that Israel had no answer to the shorter-range rockets. Yet as The Jerusalem Post reported on Monday, Israel's political and military leadership knew full well in advance of the fighting that we had no answer to the Katyusha threat. A report on Israel's defense doctrine for the next decade, compiled from information within the IDF and presented to then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz in April as well as to the General Staff, dealt specifically with the possibility of a conflict such as the war with Hizbullah and flagged as "urgent" Israel's vulnerability to Katyushas. What went wrong, as Matan Vilna'i summed up with terrible bluntness, is that "nobody internalized the catastrophic significance of the short-range rocket capability." Israeli intelligence knew that Hizbullah had "transformed the short-range rocket threat because it was equipped with rockets that could fly 30 kilometers." But nobody in the decision-making process, Vilna'i charged, recognized the consequent likely impact or even asked the crucial questions when the chief of General Staff presented his battle plans. "It comes back to the decision-making echelon... When the chief of staff makes his presentations, they have to know which are the right questions to ask in order to understand him. Not merely to nod. In this case, that was lacking." The serving cabinet minister with whom I spoke emphatically denied this last claim. He insisted that, from the word go, ministers raised questions about the vulnerability of the home front. "We knew what the Katyushas could do," he said. If so, the incoherence with which this conflict was waged seems even more inexplicable: The successes of the first few days were undone when rockets, entirely predictably, rained down on a helpless northern Israel. Israel's decision-makers had known from the start that they had no proper means of preventing the fatal rain, except by sending a major land force far enough north into Lebanon to capture the territory from which the rockets were being fired. Yet Israel neither halted the fighting when Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and Hizbullah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah pleaded for a cease-fire at that early stage, before our vulnerability was exposed, nor ordered the ground offensive that would seek to prevent the rockets as days turned to weeks. The savvy ex-politician I quoted earlier went so far as to tell me that he thought every single member of the cabinet ought to be drawing personal conclusions from their behavior over the past few weeks. Or as he put it more folksily, "They should be putting their keys on the table and heading home." He drew parallels with the failures and misconceptions of 1973, but said the leadership was more culpable this time, in that the errors and the losses occurred here in a conflict which, though Hizbullah triggered it on July 12, was essentially initiated by Israel. "How could we initiate and prolong a conflict in which we knew we had no answer to the Katyushas?" he wailed. The serving cabinet minister, unsurprisingly, made plain that he and his colleagues were hardly preparing to give back the company cars. Time and again, he placed blame on the IDF, talking here of a reliance on aerial photography that was six years old, and there of the inexplicable decision not to stock up with the most penetrative "bunker-buster" bombs that, had they been in the arsenal, might have meant war-winning success rather than failure when Israel attacked Nasrallah's Beirut bunker command complex on July 16. But Vilna'i, too, was less draconian. The problems long predated a government that had barely taken office, he stressed. The war necessitated thorough investigation and, if this was handled properly, the vital lessons would be learned and implemented, and Israel strengthened for the rounds of conflict that, surely, are to come. "We've discovered that a lot of things are not the way they should be," he said. "But we have enough time to reorganize and we're sufficiently strong to do it." MANY YEARS ago, the wife of a very senior diplomat who had also worked for several prime ministers told me, with dismal world-weariness, that "even if their incompetence and egotism was leading to the certain collapse of this country, many of our shameless politicians would still be bickering about who should steer the sinking ship." We all want to believe that this is overly cynical. But when ministers themselves acknowledge the "mediocracy" in which they are working, and when you take stock of the fresh-faced, brave and dedicated young men and women who put their lives on the line for this country with absolute trust in those who dispatch them, and the steadfast families who somehow manage to produce each generation of such youngsters, you cannot but think that we deserve better.