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Former PM Shimon Peres: 'I would Not Have Gone To War With Hezbollah'

Maj.Gen.( res.) Amos Malka: 'The IDF Was Worn Down After Lebanon Withdrawal By Its Exaggerated Attention To Palestinian Issue'

IsraCast: 'Peres Testimony Reveals That Prime Minister Olmert & Defense Minister Peretz Performed As Inexperienced Leaders'

IDF soldiers in Lebanon war,
summer 2006

Former prime minister Shimon Peres has starred in the first installment of closed door testimony to the Winograd Inquiry into last summer's war with Hezbollah. Deputy-Premier Peres, who has voiced public support for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in effect hauled Olmert over the coals for his performance after the Hezbollah attack that killed eight IDF soldiers and abducted two others. Maj. Gen.(res.) Amos Malka, IDF intelligence chief at the time of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 also blamed the IDF General Staff for being preoccupied with the war on Palestinian terrorism. IsraCast analyzes part of the testimony against the backdrop of Israel's political scene.

'I would not have gone to that war' - that statement by Deputy Premier Shimon Peres has startled Israel. Peres dropped the bombshell in his testimony to the Winograd Inquiry into last summer's conflict with Hezbollah.

In compliance with a Supreme Court ruling, the Winograd Commission has started releasing redacted testimony. The Peres revelations behind closed doors are all the more surprising because he has voiced unreserved public support for Ehud Olmert calling him 'one of Israel's better prime ministers'. Peres went on to criticize Olmert's 'list of goals' explaining that Israel had not initiated the war but was acting in self-defense -  'When we were attacked we had to defend ourselves, that's all'. And he added: ' By declaring that the mission was to return the two abducted IDF soldiers, you leave yourself at the mercy of the enemy whether or not you will achieve your goal'. 

Shimon Peres (photo: Amit Shabi)

Peres also took issue with the government's war-time decision making. The Israel Defense Forces first brought their proposals to the Prime Minister and Defense Minister Amir Peretz and only then to the seven-member security cabinet for approval. The result was that Olmert and Peretz came to the cabinet with a fixed plan and Peres added: ' It was very difficult to move one of them, they were already linked. Therefore to my great regret things went astray. I would have brought Chief of Staff Halutz directly to the cabinet. That does not mean the Prime Minister should not have conducted negotiations beforehand but in my opinion he should not have taken prior decisions. If the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff come with a unified position the cabinet discussion loses a great deal of its effectiveness'.

Peres was also quoted as saying that it was impossible to say the war had failed not could it be said it had succeeded. It had not failed because Hezbollah could not explain to the Lebanese people why it had gone to war with Israel. In his view, a 'tired' IDF had entered the war with Hezbollah due to its having to cope ' with the war which is not a war' against the Palestinians. 

Read about Shimon Peres on Jewish Virtual Gallery

The testimony of  Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Malka also casts light on the run-up to the war. Malka served as IDF intelligence chief in the year 2000 when the army withdrew from all of the security zone in southern Lebanon. He said the IDF had been worn down during the four or five years before last summer's conflict. The cause for this IDF downgrading was its exaggerated attention to the issue of Palestinian terrorism. Not enough resources were allocated to training combat units and when the war broke out , the high command reacted as if it was a typical operation in the territories and not an operation on a much larger scale.

PM Ehud Olmert

Malka also criticized the lack of staff work in Olmert's office and that of other prime ministers over the years. There was no effective National Security Council to provide another source of input to that of the IDF. In Malka's words the prime minister arrives at the crucial meetings as if  he is ' on a visit' while IDF officers more or less run the discussion.

As for the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, it was opposed by a number of IDF generals at the time including Moshe Yaalon who later became Chief of Staff. Malka said the speech of Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasralla comparing Israel to a 'spider's web' that would collapse under pressure was accepted by the Arab world rather than the view of then Prime Minister Ehud Barak who had contended that Israel would be much stronger after the pullback.

Winograd Fallout: This first installment of Winograd testimony can only add to the negative impact of the war on Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Peretz.  The Olmert and Peretz leadership is exposed as a duo of bungling amateurs who decided within hours to go to war without adequate consultation and preparation - they were actually learning on the job. The result was a war that killed over 150 Israeli soldiers and civilians, forced over one million Israeli civilians to hole up in bomb shelters for over a month and forced hundreds of thousands of others to flee as refugees to the south. This at the same time as severely degrading Israel's deterrent image in the Middle East. Both Olmert and Peretz are emerging as two party leaders who were eager to show they could run a war on their own. In Olmert's case, he decided not to seek the advice of an experienced leader like Peres, his deputy in the coalition government. As reported by IsraCast immediately after the war, this  combination when teamed up with a Chief of Staff like Dan Halutz, a brilliant and very assertive fighter pilot who was determined to prove that air power could win a guerrilla war, proved to be a prescription for what most Israelis see as a failure.

Political Fallout:   A Maariv opinion poll conducted earlier indicates that if elections were held today Olmert's Kadima party and Labor under Peretz would win only 13 seats in the 120 member Knesset. Bibi Netanyahu's Likud party is the front runner garnering 35 mandates. In the last election the popular Ariel Sharon won only five taking forty seats. However, the emphasis is on today. It is highly unlikely that either Olmert or Peretz will survive as party leaders.  In Kadima, the popular Tzipi Livni has signaled that she will challenge Olmert for party leadership even if he survives Winograd. Over in Labor, Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak have also opened big leads over Peretz. In fact, the Maariv poll forecasts that Kadima headed by Livni would actually win the election with 25 seats with Netanyahu's Likud and Ayalon's Labor tied with 23! If Ehud Barak were to lead Labor, Livni would win with 27 while Netanyahu would remain with 23 while Barak's Labor party would drop to only 20.  So it's still early days. If the Prime Minister didn't have enough headaches, the latest financial scandal involving Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, a strong Olmert man, was the last thing he needed at this juncture.  The  stench  of corruption that has permeated Kadima has not stuck to Livni. She is perceived as lily- white, smart and competent, a rising star who some view as the next Golda Meir. Olmert himself is also under investigation for some past financial dealings. There is no question that personal honesty and integrity will be high on voters' minds when they cast their ballots next time around and this is where  Livni stands out. The same applies over in Labor. Ami Ayalon  has a sterling record  as commander  of the Naval Commandos, Israel Navy commander and chief of the Shabak Security Service. Like Livni, he has never been tarnished by even the slightest hint of scandal or inappropriate behavior. His weak side is never having served in a cabinet post.

But personal integrity is only one aspect in the race for leadership.  The Peres testimony spotlights the dire necessity of Israel having either a prime minister or defense minister with a background  of strategic experience. This is where the two former prime ministers  step in; Likud's Bibi Netanyahu and Labor's Ehud Barak can contend they've been there and have what it takes to cope with the current threats to Israel's very survival. In the short term, it's impossible to say whether Olmert and/or Peretz will survive the inquiry's internal report next month. As for Amir Peretz, who needs a novice as defense minister, when Israel might have to consider what to do about Iran? Peretz may also lose the Labor party primary in May and the defense portfolio that goes with party leadership. Peretz has the option of resigning as defense  minister and seeking a deal that would better his forlorn prospects of winning the party's primary election. If Olmert does get a new defense minister of caliber like Barak or Ayalon, it could boost his chances of survival.  

Footnote: Granted that Shimon Peres' candid critique of Prime Minister Olmert's statecraft was made behind closed doors to the Winograd Inquiry. But surely, Peres must have realized that one day  the testimony would be made public. The former prime minister is running unofficially for the position of state president to be elected by the Knesset in another few months. Peres obviously needs the strong support of the Prime Minister and the Kadima party and the publication of his critical comments must have annoyed Olmert.  Peres now says his remarks were taken out of context and only very partial segments of his testimony were released. On the other hand, those remarks illustrate how an experienced prime minister would have acted under the pressure of the deadly Hezbollah attack. Could it be that Shimon Peres  had in mind that one day he might be asked to step in as a stop - gap  prime minister in case Ehud Olmert is forced to resign?

Olmert On The Ropes: During an address to the Kibbutz movement, Olmert was heckled by a member of the audience, who wanted to know what the Prime minister was doing to bring three abducted soldiers back for the upcoming Passover Seder. Olmert replied there was no quick fix and the government was doing all it could. The incident illustrates the mounting public pressure facing the Prime Minister. He obviously  needs a shot in the arm to improve his shattered image. Might it come from engaging Syria in peace talks? Syria's President Bashar Assad wants to get to the table and this week Olmert declared that Israel would not miss a chance to negotiate with its enemies and was ready to make concessions. If the U.S. gives the green light they could be closer than anyone thinks. Ibrahim Suleiman, who has close ties with the Syrian regime, is due to appear before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on April 12th to discuss 'contacts between Israel & Syria'. Suleiman has had private talks with Dr. Alon Lial, a former director- general of Israel's Foreign Ministry. Both former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bashar Assad were reportedly briefed on the unofficial discussions.

A dramatic announcement about official Israeli - Syrian peace talks would certainly shake up the Israeli political scene.

David Essing

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