War report blasts Israel prime minister

A government commission on Monday blasted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and top army brass for “serious failure” in handling last year’s Lebanon war, dealing a heavy blow to his flagging leadership.

Reading from partial findings of an investigation, retired judge Eliyahu Winograd held Olmert, Defence Minister Amir Peretz and former chief of staff Dan Halutz principally responsible for the failures of the 34-day conflict.

“If each or anyone of those would have acted better, the decisions and the results of the war would have been different or better,” Winograd said of the conflict that began after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

“The prime minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one,” despite his lack of experience in foreign policy and military affairs.

He accused Olmert of not adequately considering political and professional reservations presented to him, and held him responsible for not clearly setting out goals after ordering military action against Hezbollah.

“He made a personal contribution to the fact that the declared goals were over-ambitious and not feasible,” the report said, blaming him for failing to adapt his plans once it emerged Israel’s actions were not realistic. “All of these add up to a serious failure in exercising judgement, responsibility and prudence,” said the report.

Defence minister ‘failed’

The report was equally scathing about Peretz, a former trade unionist whose previous military experience was limited to national service, charging that he failed in his job.

“The minister of defence failed in fulfilling his functions. Therefore, his serving as minister of defence during the war impaired Israel’s ability to respond well to its challenges,” the report said.

Winograd also blamed Halutz, who resigned over the war in January, of being inadequately prepared, of not properly alerting the political echelon and responding impulsively to the deadly cross-border raid on July 12.

“The chief of staff failed in his duties as commander in chief of the army and as a critical part of the political-military leadership, and exhibited flaws in professionalism, responsibility and judgement,” it said.

Olmert, who received a copy of the damning report one hour before Winograd presented his findings to the public, vowed to correct the mistakes.
“We shall examine the report and immediately try to learn the lessons we must learn and correct all the mistakes,” he told commission members.

He will now face the biggest fight of his political career, what one Israeli daily branded a “war for survival” and another his “day of judgement” with aides already fully briefed on a public-relations offensive.

In almost immediate reaction to bolster his closest regional ally, a White House spokesperson told reporters that United States President George Bush views Olmert as “essential” to Middle East peace efforts.

Public reaction

The report stopped short of recommending that Olmert quit—and with the premier himself excluding such a move without an explicit ruling from the commission, his fate is expected to be decided by the public reaction.

His numerous critics increased their calls for him to resign ahead of Monday’s report, and have vowed to stage mass demonstrations later this week.

Weakened by the war and a string of corruption scandals implicating him and senior members of his government, Olmert’s ratings have sunk to an historic low with just 2% of Israelis trusting him, according to opinion polls.

But with a 78-member coalition in the 120-seat Parliament and a strong economy, the man known for his political survival skills has room to manoeuvre, observers say.

The Winograd commission was set up last year after army reservists blasted lack of preparation that left some units without adequate food supplies, and residents of northern Israel criticising the state for a lack of support.

The war killed more than 1 200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and more than 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, according to government figures. The conflict failed to retrieve the two Israeli servicemen and to stop Hezbollah rocket fire that sent a million Israelis fleeing from the north.

Monday’s partial report spanned the period from Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, following two decades of occupation, until July 17, five days after the deadly Hezbollah raid. A full report is due by the year-end.—Sapa-AFP

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