Fuad's stark testimony

Too little attention has been paid in our public discourse to the remarkable testimony of Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

ben eliezer fuad 88, 298 (photo credit: Israel Foreign Ministry)
ben eliezer fuad 88, 298
(photo credit: Israel Foreign Ministry)
Too little attention has been paid in our public discourse to the remarkable testimony of Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer before the Winograd Committee, made public on Monday. Ben-Eliezer took to task all involved - former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz misled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Olmert had no clue about defense and Amir Peretz never wanted the defense portfolio. But perhaps Ben-Eliezer's most cogent criticism was that the ministers feared a land incursion into Lebanon, which is why it was delayed, half-hearted and ineffective. When judging any of the testimonies before the panel, it's vital to keep in mind self-serving interests. Witnesses desire to avoid imputing any hint of blame to themselves and may perhaps be tempted to settle personal scores. Ben-Eliezer had to account for the fact that during his own stint as defense minister - between 2000 and 2002, under Ariel Sharon - Hizbullah's massive reinforcement directly on the border with Israel was ignored. That said, however, Ben-Eliezer's testimony is particularly intriguing as an eye-opener into the psyches, not only of the top players but also of the rest of the cabinet. Ben-Eliezer assessment was that even in circumstances where the army is under-trained and under-equipped, it's possible to call up reserves and to quickly correct logistical shortcomings. He suggested a week's ultimatum to Hizbullah and Lebanon after the kidnapping of the two reservists that triggered the war. During that time, the army could have been readied, he said. (The censor removed Ben-Eliezer's detailed proposals, which were rejected by Olmert, from the interim Winograd Report.) Ben-Eliezer reported that he went to Olmert and warned him early on that nothing was progressing properly and that he must not take Halutz's word for it that air strikes would do the job. "To this the prime minister replied," Ben-Eliezer testified, "what do you want from me, Fuad? Everyone is against you. None of the ministers support you... Unlike my predecessors, I'm not a commander - not of a battalion, regiment or even a platoon. Neither am I a general. I need to designate goals and the military needs to design ways to achieve them. None of the generals who conferred with me drew up plans." Ben-Eliezer's reaction was, "Where are the IDF generals? Where?" He insisted in his testimony that the war was winnable, but "we made every possible mistake. The ramifications are severe. Until now, the Arabs feared an Israeli knockout. After this episode, that axiom has been broken." Committee member Prof. Ruth Gavison summed up Ben-Eliezer's devastating bottom line, noting that from his testimony it emerged that "the government ministers simply didn't want to deploy land forces, and that's pretty astounding... Considering... the clear evidence that things were not going well, they still didn't want to deploy land forces and that was what above all else mattered to them." Another panel member, Prof. Yehezkel Dror, noted the existence of "political impediments against sending in troops, even if it were otherwise the correct course to take... Political constraints in the end are the ones that count." The ministers, evidently, were still caught up in the trauma of the IDF's prolonged stay in south Lebanon's security zone, as well as the hurried and harried exit from it. Returning to the same areas would, at the very least, have constituted an admission of error and necessitated overcoming high psychological hurdles - both moves that the politicians involved feared taking upon themselves. Ben-Eliezer, Gavison and Dror intimated that the fundamental failure was one of lack of resolve and courage to opt for a potentially unpopular decision. The problem, Gavison implied, was one of mind-set, and the entire cabinet and IDF General Staff were culpable. Technical flaws are easier to fix, but though more difficult to tackle, the competence to rise above political trepidations is the most fundamental problem. The Olmert government went into the war enjoying high support and popularity, yet even under such favorable circumstances it lacked the gumption for serious decision-making. It also, as the committee's interim report made plain, failed to even ascertain quite how unready the IDF was for a land incursion - again, a failure of basic competence. A leader now crippled by a much lower level of support has less leeway to make tough calls - the kind of tough calls the government is increasingly being called upon to make. All of this renders the insistent pledge by the prime minister, that he and his government will "implement the Winograd report," a contradiction in terms.