Facing the bereaved

It's fitting that both speakers the Lebanon War ceremony were replacements for officials who resigned.

burial idf feature 298 (photo credit: Illustrative Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
burial idf feature 298
(photo credit: Illustrative Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
It is fitting, and presumably no coincidence, that both speakers at yesterday's official memorial service on the first anniversary of the Second Lebanon War - Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi - are replacements for officials who felt compelled to step down in the wake of that war. By the same token, it would have been awkward if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the sole member of the troika that led the war to remain in office, had decided to speak to the families of 119 soldiers and 44 civilians who lost their lives in the conflict that began one year ago. The reason it would have been awkward is not because there is nothing that can be said about what these Israelis died for. For all the criticism of the war in hindsight, we must not forget that Israelis were united in backing the government's decision to no longer tolerate the status quo on the northern border, under which northern Israel lay hostage to thousands of Hizbullah's missiles, and Hizbullah could attack or kidnap our soldiers at will, as happened on July 12, 2006. Nor should we forget that the ambiguous outcome of the war was just that; a war with both failures and accomplishments. Even the failures, including in the decision-making process at the top echelons and in military preparedness as revealed by the Winograd Committee's report, include the seeds of accomplishment, in that they revealed deficiencies that could have proven even more costly and that now may be fixed. Moreover, the war revealed something else: the incredible resilience of Israeli society in both its civilian and military capacities. We saw how residents of the North withstood the bombardment of their homes, how Israelis rallied to support them with all forms of assistance, the extremely high rate of response to the reserve call-up, and how our soldiers fought under the circumstances of insufficient training and murky objectives. This knowledge does not lessen the pain of bereaved families. And yet, even infinite pain has gradations, so we must not add to it. We have an obligation as a society not only to remember and recognize what the war achieved, but to implement the lessons learned at such a high cost. Barak and Ashkenazi, whatever their talents and faults, can credibly look the bereaved families in the eyes and say that they are dedicating themselves to ensuring that both the IDF and the political echelon will be better prepared in the future, and that this preparedness is itself a critical deterrent against future conflicts. Our prime minister, by contrast, could not. One year after the war, and months after the Winograd Committee issued its interim report, our prime minister embodies unfinished business. Winograd documented and confirmed what the public had long already known: that the war had been mismanaged, that the failures were systemic and not something those who perpetrated them could correct, and that those primarily responsible needed to be replaced for the country to move on. On Sunday, Ehud Barak reaffirmed his pledge to pull the Labor Party out of the government if Olmert does not resign when the Winograd Committee completes its report. This just underlines the untenability of Olmert's position, if not politically, then morally. Politically, Olmert has proven skilled at shoring up his coalition. He may succeed, somehow, in delaying the release of the full Winograd Report, and even in extending his political survival beyond that unknown date. None of this, however, changes the fundamental reality, which is that Olmert is hanging on to power despite the public's judgement that he is incapable of correcting the flaws, both personal and systemic, that the war revealed. Worse, Olmert's extreme public confidence-deficit creates a vicious circle: A prime minister dedicated overwhelmingly to political survival becomes paralyzed, and this paralysis prevents him from even beginning to fulfill his oxymoronic pledge to "implement the Winograd Report." Olmert cannot implement the report because the first step toward doing so would be for those most responsible for the failures it delineates to step down. Though Olmert's decision not to speak at yesterday's ceremony was tactful, it also implicitly recognized the heart of the problem: He does not have the standing to speak to them. By clinging to power, Olmert is putting the country in an untenable situation. A prime minister who cannot face the families of soldiers fallen in the last war is in no position to prevent the next war or, if necessary, to order soldiers into battle again.