Lessons of Winograd

Going to war is the ultimate test of political leadership. It is the mark of sovereignty. It should be resorted to only as a last resort. The leadership failed all these benchmarks.

Olmert concerned 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert concerned 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Now that some of the dust has settled and the shrillness so typical of Israeli political discourse has been slightly toned down, some lessons can be learned from what the Winograd Committee did - and did not - do. First of all, the committee showed remarkable self-restraint, a rare commodity in Israel's political culture. It did not mince words in cataloguing the sins of commission and omission of the prime minister, minister of defense and chief-of-staff. But it rightly refrained from calling for the resignation of the first two (the third is already history). The committee realized that for all its power, it is not entitled to determine, or even suggest, who should lead the government. As in any democracy, this right is in the hands of the sovereign - the people and its duly elected representatives. That this mechanism is sometimes flawed and certainly does not always deliver what each citizen would like to see at any given moment is inherent in the nature of democracy. But it is up to "We the People" to decide who should lead the country, not a committee. Nor should this decision be entrusted to the Supreme Court or the state comptroller, something which is sometimes forgotten in the current zealous atmosphere.
Winograd Fallout: In-Depth
IN RETROSPECT, it may seem prudent that the Winograd Committee was not an official state inquiry commission. Many - including myself - did prefer at the time a full-fledged official commission. But I think we were wrong. Why? If a decision had been made last autumn on a state inquiry commission it would have been appointed, according to law, by the president of the Supreme Court. It is reasonable to assume that he - or she, depending on the date in question - would have appointed himself or herself as chair. Is it unreasonable to imagine that he (or she) would have withstood the temptation to add the pivotal sentence - "the prime minister and minister of defense should resign" - to their report? Given the activist, assertive, if not power-driven nature of Israel's Supreme Court, I doubt if its justices would have been able to restrain themselves from becoming king-makers, thus rushing in where only the sovereign - the people - should tread. The Winograd Committee should be commended for withstanding this temptation. AS FOR the report itself, one crucial thing becomes clear from the combination of ignorance (Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's and even more Defense Minister Amir Peretz's) and arrogance (former chief-of-staff Dan Halutz's) that led Israel into a war they did not want or plan. Given the nature of Israel's inherent security dilemmas, the country always lives on the narrow edge of the Clausewitzian dictum that "war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means." This much-quoted insight is far from trivial; nor is the transition from the state of diplomacy to the state of war automatic or in the nature of things: certainly it should not be treated lightly. The committee has castigated the Olmert-Peretz government for crossing this thin line on July 12, 2006 in a reckless, unthinking and irresponsible way. It is for this that both men should resign. GOING TO war is always the ultimate test of political leadership. It is the mark of sovereignty. It should always be resorted to only as a last resort. The leadership failed all these benchmarks. The 1948 War of Independence was forced on nascent Israel even before it emerged as a body politic, so it is beyond the scope of the present analysis. The 1956 Sinai-Suez Campaign was planned for months - and it doesn't matter whether one agrees with the so-called "collusion" with France and Britain: The upshot was that the war was carried out with resounding success. In 1967, Israel was caught by surprise, but the agonizing three weeks leading up to June 5 gave both political leaders and military planners sufficient time to adjust their strategy and seek international support. The surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973 was eventually offset by a set of military counter-offensives that demonstrated both the versatility and endurance of Israel's military capabilities. And in 1982 even the opponents of the Lebanon War have to admit that it was thought out and planned exceedingly well from the militarily point of view even though prime minister Menachem Begin, not a great maven in strategic matters, was tricked into the war by then defense minister Ariel Sharon without realizing its consequences. But that's another story. IN 2006, for the first time in its history, Israel got itself into a war without willing it, without planning it, at a time not of its own choosing and with an army that did not believe war was on the agenda. It took all of two hours on the evening of July 12 for the cabinet to initiate the steps that sent Israel off down the slippery slope of that war. This is not the way to decide on a war - and deciding under such circumstances guarantees the kind of failures and unresolved problems (Katyushas raining down for a whole month without adequate response) that ensued. All this made the war the kind of morass it turned out to be. By bringing this out very clearly, the Winograd Report, with all its justified restraint, sends a message to all of us, the sovereign people: Never again must Israel be led by people with no experience in security or defense matters. This doesn't mean that only former generals qualify: Neither Shimon Peres nor Moshe Arens, who both served with distinction as ministers of defense, were military men, but they knew what security and defense were about. The Olmert-Peretz team did not, and they should be relieved of responsibility for our security, our defense, and our future. The author is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.