Those who were expecting the Winograd Commission to issue a final verdict so damning of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he would have no choice but to resign – as did after the issuance of the Commission’s interim report – were surely disappointed by last week’s report. As he had promised even before release of the final report, Olmert will not be following the example of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who earlier resigned in humiliation, any time in the near future.
The Commission refused to assign personal responsibility or make personnel recommendations, which were beyond the mandate Olmert had crafted when appointing the Commission. And that is as it should be. Just as the Israeli Supreme Court should not be making the ultimate life and death issues in Israel, so it is not up to a commission, no matter how distinguished its members, to decide that the prime minister must go. That is a decision for the Israeli people to make. The Commission has issued its findings, and now the population must consider their implications and make its decision. If it is too apathetic to take to the streets in mass protests, or to bring pressure on various coalition partners, then it will have the government it deserves.
At one level, the Winograd Report confirmed what had long been evident to virtually every sentient observer: to government’s conduct of the Second Lebanon War was incoherent. As the Report put it, "[A]fter the initial decision had been made, Israel had only two main options, each with its own internal logic, and its sets of costs and disadvantages." The first option was a "short, painful, strong, and unexpected blow on Hezbollah." (The Commission’s Interim Report already established that Prime Minister Olmert and the rest of the cabinet gave little, if any, thought to the possibility that Hezbollah might respond to Israel’s heavy bombardment by raining its own missiles on northen Israel.) The second option was to bring about a significant change in the reality in the South of Lebanon with a large ground operation.
The problem, the Report charged, was that the government never decided between these two options. Nor did it even appear to recognize what its options were or the various implications of each. Not only did it equivocate; it did not even debate the two sides: "[L]ong weeks passed without a serious discussion of these options."
That indecision was the result of a disastrous symbiosis of Olmert’s great fear of being sucked back into the Lebanese turmoil, and consequent refusal to authorize any ground action until the days of the war, and Chief of Staff Halutz’s mystical belief in the power of air power to single-handedly determine the outcome. The result was that such ground actions as the IDF carried out were not part of any overall strategic conception, and were thus incapable of achieving any results of any kind.
As a result, Israel found itself after 34 days of warfare with a ceasefire agreement that it could almost certainly have achieved after its first heavy response and a few days of fighting. Rather than stopping "after its early military achievements, [Israel] was ‘dragged’ into a ground operation only after the political and diplomatic timetable prevented its effective completion."
The Commission’s charitable judgment of the outcome of the Second Lebanon War was that there were no political achievements as a consequence of military successes, and that Israel relied on a political agreement to bring "to a stop a war which it had failed to win." Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens put the matter more bluntly: "We were defeated. . . . Israel, with the strongest army in the Middle East, was defeated by two thousand Hezbollah fighters in a war that lasted 34 days." As we wrote in these pages at the very outset of the war, any result that left Hezbollah still standing and able to claim that it had fought Israel to a standstill was a victory for it, for it had exposed Israel’s deterrent capacity as greatly overrated.
THE ONE GREAT VICTORY FOR OLMERT in the Commission’s findings was that he was cleared of the single worst charge ever leveled at an Israeli prime minister: that he had sent 33 Jewish boys to die in vain in the last two days of fighting for no other reason to put a positive "spin" on the War. Yet the fact that Olmert palpably breathed a sigh of relief after the Commission’s conclusions with respect to the last sixty hours of fighting only serves to show how bad he expected the verdict to be. For what the Commission did write hardly constituted an exoneration of Olmert, except perhaps to the charge of murder.
The Commission found, inter alia, that neither the political nor military echelons gave any serious consideration to the issue of whether it was reasonable to expect any military achievements in the last 60 hours. Nor did it find any evidence of any serious discussion of the issue of stopping the fighting once the Security Council Resolution was adopted but before it was to go into effect. Finally, the Commission had no solution to the riddle of why the government initially pushed the United States to secure more time for the planned ground operation and then cut short that operation even before the actual ceasefire went into effect. Given the incoherence of the cabinet decisions being reached, and the IDF’s failure to adopt its battle plan to the various stops and starts on the diplomatic front, one can understand how former Chief of Staff Moshe "Boogie" Ya’alon (who was dismissed from his post in favor of the hapless Halutz) concluded that the last sixty hours of fighting were a "spin" operation.
The Report attributes Olmert’s reluctant authorization of a major ground operation as growing out of a desire to improve the terms of the ceasefire resolution. In the original draft shown Israel by Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, the Security Council would have imposed an arms embargo on Hezbollah and authorized the use of force to enforce it. That language was absent from a subsequent draft shown Israel.
It could be that President Bush, who had used up precious diplomatic capital to secure for Israel the time to win a decisive victory over Iran’s Hezbollah proxy, was simply too frustrated by Israel’s failure to do so by that point to invest any more on Israel’s behalf in negotiations with the other permanent members of the Security Council. In any event, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton vigorously denied on a recent visit to Israel that Israel’s late ground offensive had resulted in any improvement in the final language of Security Council Resolution 1701.
FOR OLMERT, who defines success almost exclusively in terms of holding on to office, another benefit from the Winograd Report was that it was so scathing with respect to the IDF. The failures of the IDF, described in alarming detail in the Report, helped draw fire from the prime minister. In particular, the General Staff came under a barrage of criticism in every respect. According to the Commission, the General Staff was not even able to decide until the very end whether it was engaged in a war or an expanded security operation.
Perhaps most alarming, the Commission discovered deep crisis in precisely those values in which the IDF has always excelled: "operational discipline, determination in carrying out the mission, combat leadership, aspiration for victory, personal example, and taking responsibility. Division commanders were criticized for managing the fighting from behind plasma screens in Israel rather than on the battlefield.
Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who replaced the disgraced Dan Halutz as Chief of Staff, has made the rehabilitation of the ground forces his top priority. The most evident failures of the Second Lebanon War – lack of training, insufficient supplies for reserve soldiers – are being corrected. Rehabilitating the army’s values, writes Yediot Aharonot’s military reporter Alex Fishman, will prove much harder.
In discussing the War, Israel’s leading commentators focused primarily on values, or the lack thereof, of Prime Minister Olmert. Yossi Klein Halevi noted that he is the first Israeli prime minister who is a life-long politician. Ari Shavit, perhaps the most savage critic of the conduct of the War, even as it was raging, described Olmert as the "embodiment" of the crisis in Israeli society: "Serious statesmanship is alien to him, fundamental thought could not be further from him. The prime minister is a first-rate politician, but an irresponsible captain." The Winograd Commission Report was, in essence, a commentary on the state of the nation, opined Shavit. And as such it stood in stark contrast to the prime minister, "[who] has never delivered a truthful speech about the state of the nation."
"It will be impossible to rehabilitate the country’s and the army’s systems when the commander-in-chief lacks integrity and moral authority," Shavit charged. Michael Oren and his colleague at the Shalem Center Yossi Klein Halevi both focused on the conduct of the war as having broken the Israeli social contract. Israelis, wrote Klein Halevi, will not take on the burden of defending their country, unless they trust in their leaders’ integrity. Olmert, however, is "the first Israeli politician widely perceived to place his own interests above those of the nation -- . . . a clever lawyer who’s managed to keep one step ahead of the law." "The person who sends us into battle cannot escape responsibility for our fate," wrote Oren in the Wall Street Journal.
Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz noted the international public relations disaster caused by Israel’s minor embargo of gas products to Gaza last week. As Hamas fed the media propaganda about freezing Palestinian children and pretended that there was no electricity in Gaza, Israel’s public relations team was nowhere to be found. Embassy staff in many European countries were at a training session and the government’s most articulate spokesmen were on vacation. There was no one home to point out that the pictures of the Hamas cabinet meeting by candle light were taken with the blinds drawn in the middle of the day. But even as Israel’s public diplomacy once again failed to describe Israeli goals or means, Horowitz observed ironically, the prime minister certainly showed that he understands the value of public diplomacy, as he huddled with his media advisors on how best to lessen the Winograd Commission’s bite.
PERHAPS THE STRONGEST INDICTMENT of the government was not over its past mistakes, but over its insistence on repeating those very same mistakes in Gaza. That inability to learn from past mistakes was the subject of a Ha’aretz editorial that characterized the Commision’s final report as even harsher than the interim report "because it asserts that after the failure of the first days, no conclusions were drawn, no changes were made, there was no improvement in either the level of decision-making or it the performance of the government or the IDF."
Meanwhile we are witnessing a repeat of what happened in Lebanon repeating itself in Gaza, with no strategic answer in sight and the government careening between varying responses. Just as Hezbollah, amassed more than 12,000 rockets over a period of years after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, so is Hamas today continually adding to its military stores, including longer range missiles. With the demolition of the fence along the Philadelphia Corridor between Gaza and Egypt, the number of sophisticated weapons flowed in more rapidly that ever before, along with Hamas terrorists trained abroad.
Just as Israel let Hezbollah grow stronger daily, and refused to respond to the threat for fear of being dragged into the Lebanese quagmire, so too does the Israeli government today resist any massive ground operation into Gaza for fear of the number of casualties that would be incurred against the ever better trained and better-armed Hamas forces. And so does Israel’s deterrent power continue to spiral downhill.
As Caroline Glick pointed out last week, just as the government vacillated back and forth between one approach and another in Lebanon, so too today does it employ a soup de jour response to Gaza. One day it is cutting supplies, the next it is sending them. One day it is complaining of Egyptian indifference along the Philadephia Corridor; the next day it is lauding Egpytian efforts. With no consistent strategy, it is impossible for Israel to explain its goals, and when that happens, observes Glick, it is also impossible to defend its actions, even when its civilians are under rocket fire.
The fundamental error of unilateral withdrawal, Glick argues, is being repeated today: the belief that others can be conscripted to defend Israel when she renounces the right to defend herself. Thus U.N. peacekeepers were going to keep Hezbollah from returning in full force to the South. And today, we place our faith in Egypt manning the Gaza-Sinai border.
Elisheva Tzemach, a bereaved mother quoted by Glick, puts the matter in crystal clarity. She demands the government’s ouster not for her son who died, but for her sons who still live.
This article appeared in Yated Ne'eman on Febuary 6 2008.