A failed leadership

Olmert cannot go on. His tenure from hereon will be a prime ministership on borrowed time.

olmert 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
olmert 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
With all due respect to the prime minister, and notwithstanding the personal focus of much of the reporting surrounding today's Winograd Committee interim report, the political career of Ehud Olmert is not the most pressing issue on the national agenda. What is most critical, rather, is that this country be governed by men and women with the ability to protect it and to keep its people safe. Olmert has rightly asserted from many platforms that his decision to launch an immediate military response to the bombardment of northern Israel and the kidnapping within our sovereign borders of two soldiers in July was overwhelmingly supported by his cabinet, opposition politicians and the public. The failure of the subsequent, belatedly named Second Lebanon War to defang the Hizbullah threat and reassert Israel's vital deterrent capability can by no means be laid solely at the then-new prime minister's door, as the Winograd interim report has made clear. A good part of it stems from miscalculations and errors in the years preceding the outbreak of the conflict, and must be ascribed to military officers and politicians who no longer hold central positions of power. One of these most central figures, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz, tendered his resignation weeks ahead of this report. That personal acceptance of responsibility enabled as smooth and efficient a transition of authority in the IDF as could have been hoped for. It has also meant that lessons learned from the war's failures are already being implemented under the new Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. However he might now be presenting it, Defense Minister Amir Peretz has also essentially acknowledged that he was wrong to have accepted his post after last year's election, when he had previously made plain that defense was neither a field of his expertise nor his most passionate interest. The Winograd evaluation of his performance - summarized in the dire assessment that "his serving as minister of defense during the war impaired Israel's ability to respond well to its challenges" - is withering, but somewhat irrelevant since his departure is in any case plainly now a matter of a few weeks, at most. In Olmert's case, the Winograd panel, which in this report focuses only on the years preceding the war and on its first five days, highlights a string of failures: "He made up his mind hastily" and in the absence of systematic consultation. He "is responsible for the fact that the goals of the campaign were not set out clearly and carefully" and "made a personal contribution to the fact that the declared goals were over-ambitious and not feasible." And he did not adapt his plans when it was plain that they were not working. "All of these," in the devastating conclusions of the committee, "add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence." These conclusions have already been drawn by much of the public, as evidenced in the prime minister's low popularity levels. The panel's final report will likely be more devastating yet, charting as it does the full 34 days of conflict, in which thousands of Katyusha rockets rained down unanswered as Israel's military strategy, demonstrably unsuccessful, nonetheless remained unchanged. By noting that it is considering issuing "personal recommendations" in its final report, the committee is intimating that it may well call for Olmert's resignation when that report is submitted in the summer, if he has not gone by then. Having earlier stressed that he took full responsibility for the events last summer, the prime minister is now indicating that he will not resign. This is a mistake, and he must think again. He cannot go on. A conscientious, thorough inquiry has catalogued his failure, and its consequences. His tenure from hereon will be a losing rearguard action, a prime ministership on borrowed time. He has said in interviews, including to this newspaper, that he believes he can yet rebuild the public's trust in him. This is even more unlikely, given the relentless swirl of corruption allegations surrounding him and his government. It is a stance that also hinders the unfolding of a process of reform parallel to that now gathering pace in the IDF - an urgent remaking of the government decision-making process and the institution of more effective procedures to ensure that correct strategies are formulated and followed. Again, what is critical here is that Israel - with Hizbullah and Palestinian extremists a constant threat, and their inspiration, Iran, marching toward nuclear capability - be governed by a leadership of competence. In that context, today's Winograd report casts the current leadership - and that extends to the entire government, which "failed in its political function" - in a dismal light. The parliamentary process can force through the necessary change, and individual politicians must look to the national interest. If they do not do so of their own volition, the public should seek to force their hand. And if the public fails to do so, it has no one to blame but itself.