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Israel's Top Political & Military Leaders Put Into Words How Their Lack Of Necessary Expertise Lead To Failings In Second Lebanon War

Winograd Testimony Reveals No Real Surprises To Israeli Public

Labor's Ehud Barak Finally Becomes Real Player On Israeli Political Scene

Peretz and Olmert (Photo: Amit Shabi)

The publication of the long awaited Winograd testimony has done little to alter the Israeli public's perception that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz fumbled the Second Lebanon War last summer. Olmert and Peretz, both inexperienced in conducting a war, rushed into battle with a military commander determined to prove that his pilots could win a guerrilla war with Hezbollah. When this strategy got bogged down, all three were at a loss of what to do. An IsraCast analysis indicates there although Olmert may have survived the first wave of public criticism, he now faces a political campaign of attrition calling on him to step down.

The publication of the Winograd testimony is little more than a public autopsy on Israel's top leaders who conducted the Second Lebanon War. The outcome of the war had already decimated Israel's leadership triangle - IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was forced to resign, Defense Minister Amir Peretz will be on his way out after the Labor party's leadership primary on May 28th. Only Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is truly fighting on for his political survival; he contends the publication of his testimony did not do justice to his role. Having already ruled that the three leaders had failed in each of their respective positions, the protocol of their testimony is likely to persuade few Israelis that this was not the worst trio ever to lead the country into war. Appearing before the commission, each naturally tried to put his best foot forward, sidestepping his mishandling of the war. They all appeared to be out of touch with reality until the very end of the fighting, even botching the last offensive that took the lives of thirty- three soldiers. The two political leaders, Olmert and Peretz, actually tried to pass the buck to the IDF by saying it had not lived up to expectations. And when the Prime Minister was asked why he had not approved a major ground operation early on, Olmert simply replied: ' The IDF had not proposed one '. As if the prime minister was a rubber stamp for the military. And why had Olmert agreed to the totally inexperienced Amir Peretz serving as his defense minister? Olmert blamed the Labor party. Peretz himself said he tried his best under the circumstances and had no way of knowing the IDF ground forces were so unprepared for war. Former Chief of Staff Halutz, actually blamed the poor performance of the IDF ground forces for the greatest failing - a war that lasted 33 days during which Hezbollah rocketed Israeli towns and villages. There was no admission by the former Israel Air Force Commander that his concept of air power had failed. Halutz also took a pot shot at serving under an inexperienced defense minister saying ' I felt the burden was even greater on me '. The bottom line is there is nothing in the testimony that alleviates Winograd's condemnation of all three; if anything it vindicates its scathing findings that they were directly responsible for the numerous failings in the war.

In the Israeli parliamentary system, the buck is supposed to stop with the prime minister ' the first among equals ' in the cabinet. Granted any leader can make a mistake and all leaders make mistakes. The question is the leader's ability to react in order to rectify a failed approach once the overall mistake should have become apparent. The Second Lebanon War revealed that Olmert lacks this ability when it comes to conducting a war. He was pulled along by a dominating IDF Chief of Staff who was absolutely convinced that his warplanes could defeat Hezbollah guerrillas without a major ground operation. When this approach did not succeed, Olmert lacked the experience and force of will to bang on the table and change course until the very last days of the war when ' too little too late ' caused severe IDF casualties.

Under Olmert's leadership, the cabinet confused political goals with military strategy. Granted that on July 12th Hezbollah's rocketing of Israeli communities and the cross border attack that killed eight soldiers and abducted two others were a clear- cut casus belli. Olmert, with broad public support and perhaps wanting to prove himself worthy of being Arik Sharon's successor, was bent on immediately clobbering Hezbollah. The truth is that many of his current political and media critics totally supported his reaction. Even the dovish Shimon Peres, who thought differently, kept silent and followed Olmert's lead. And the Prime Minister makes the case that few if any knew how woefully unprepared the ground forces were. But Chief of Staff Halutz was gung ho, knowing that the Air Force, with its reserve air crews, is always maintained at top combat readiness. So Olmert told Winograd that his decision - making had been reasonable even necessary to maintain Israel's deterrent image in the face of the flagrant Hezbollah aggression.But should it have been a limited retaliation, as had been Israel's policy until then, or all out war? ( Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah has said he was surprised by the scope of Israel's reaction and had he known this, he would not have launched the July 12th raid). IDF military responses are a vital component of Israel's deterrence but when does such an operation turn into a full- fledged war? Apparently when the objectives become open-ended with well- nigh impossible goals such as forcing Hezbollah to return the two abducted soldiers. By adopting such an approach Olmert embarked on a failed policy of overreaching because the IDF reserves were not fully mobilized and readied to drive the guerrillas out of their underground bunkers from where they rocketed Israeli communes almost at will. ( IDF's northern command had developed such a well- prepared contingency plan that called for skirting heavily- fortified Lebanese villages and outflanking Hezbollah. ) The result was that Israel got locked into a battle of attrition that resulted in thousands of Katyusha rockets hitting Israeli population centers. In the words of U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur: ' It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it '. ( After the first five days of the war, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly felt the retaliatory aspect had run its course and sought a diplomatic end to the fighting).

The Winograd partial report did not call on Prime Minister Olmert to resign hinting that it may do so in its final findings in the summer. It stressed the urgency in correcting the faulty decision-making. Olmert contends that it is in Israel's interest to introduce the changes as swiftly as possible and his government is best suited to do so. In his view, his resignation and an early election would put everything on hold. However, Olmert's testimony to the Winograd panel indicates that it is not only system changes that are required at the highest level of decision- making. Facing the constant level of threats, Israel has dire need of a prime minister withe personal capabilities to cope in time of war. At present, his Winograd testimony as presented to the Israeli public, casts Prime Minister Olmert somewhere between a lame duck and a dead duck.

Footnote: On the morning of Oct. 6th 1973, Israeli intelligence received conclusive intelligence that the Egyptian and Syrian armies were about to launch a massive surprise attack. Prime Minister Golda Meir was confronted with two conflicting positions from Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and IDF Chief of Staff David Eleazar. Eleazar called for an immediate air force strike to pre-empt the Arab armies before they started their offensives. Dayan ruled it out on the grounds that Israel would be accused of starting the war and perhaps alienating the U.S. In the end , Golda Meir accepted Dayan's advice not to pre-empt and suffer the casualties. Whether she took the right decision is debatable. Like Golda Meir, Ehud Olmert is no military expert but at least she had two top military advisers to depend upon.

Barak Becomes Real Player:

Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

After several days of staying mum after the scathing Winograd report, Ehud Barak , Labor Party leadership candidate finally took a stand. At a news conference in a kibbutz, Barak declared that Olmert should draw his own personal conclusions about resigning - this is an Israeli euphemism for quitting. On the other hand, Barak said he would be ready to serve in the Olmert cabinet ( reportedly as defense minister ) on condition that a date was set for an early election. In other words, if Barak wins the Labor party primary, he will not agree to carry on indefinitely in the Olmert government after the Winograd findings. This will stir the Kadima pot - it is tantamount to an ultimatum that Kadima politicians should start thinking seriously about dumping Olmert if they want to remain in office.

David Essing

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