Beyond Winograd

The public might forgive Olmert for the conduct of the last war, but only if he shows he can prevent the next one.

olmert winograd 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
olmert winograd 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
As the nation waits for the Winograd Committee's judgment, it is assumed that the critical question is whether the report, at either the interim or final stage, will include "personal recommendations" against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and whether he will be forced to resign. The question of the government's survival, however, should not be limited to past performance, but linked even more closely to its ability to meet current challenges. Though it is possible that the report will be so severe and its verdict so clear that Olmert will have to resign, the more likely situation is a report that is both critical and vindicating, and that does not directly call on the prime minister to step down. The Winograd report's importance, even if politically ambiguous, should not be minimized, since there is much the public still does not know regarding the decision-making process following the Hizbullah attack on July 12. There is certainly much to be learned on both the political and military levels that is urgently relevant today. Indeed, it is the government's ability to cope with the situation now, not just its conduct last year, that should be the critical test for its future in office. If the Winograd Committee substantially exonerates the government, yet this same coalition is patently incapable of dealing with a post-war reality and continues to suffer from an extreme lack of public confidence, it is unclear that it can govern. By the same token, even if the verdict on the war is relatively scathing, a government that is functioning well and has clearly learned from mistakes might be able to regain the public's trust. Politics, perhaps unfortunately, often has little use for punishment or gratitude. World War II and the Cold War were won on the watches of Winston Churchill and the senior George Bush, respectively, yet these leaders were booted out of office following these victories. At any given moment, voters understandably ask themselves whether their leadership is up to the challenges ahead, and is going in the right direction. Past successes or failures are mainly important insofar as they color judgments regarding the future. The public tends to be pragmatic, not vindictive or sentimental. Olmert, then, should not regard surviving the Winograd report as his greatest challenge. This week, for example, GSS head Yuval Diskin told the Knesset that 13 tons of military-level explosives had been smuggled into Gaza over the past year, six times the amount brought in over previous years of high terrorist activity. Hamas fighters have been shuttling to Iran for training, and the range of its rockets is growing so that Kiryat Gat could be the next city targeted. In short, Hamas is using the current limited cease-fire not only to stockpile enormous amounts of weaponry, but to improve its training and the extent of its reach. Both Hamas and the IDF view the current period of relative quiet as the time to prepare for the next war. This sort of standing by as the enemy reinforces - a form of buying short-term quiet at the price of a much costlier war down the road - is presumably what the last war taught us was reckless and unacceptable. Did we not ask ourselves, as the rockets were raining down on a million Israelis in the North, how successive governments could have allowed Hizbullah to accumulate such an arsenal? So why are we now allowing the same process to occur in Gaza? This week, Olmert went to the border with Gaza, spoke with troops, and peered into this hostile territory through binoculars (sans lens caps). Yet it is not enough to watch a buildup that, if allowed to continue, will cost Israeli lives. The government must use whatever diplomatic and military tools are necessary to shut down the flow of weaponry to Gaza and stop the countdown to war. The public might forgive Olmert for the conduct of the last war, but only if he shows he can prevent the next one.