Olmert survives, for now

Retired justice Eliyahu Winograd, who headed the panel investigating Israel’s 34-day war in Lebanon in 2006, said recently what everybody already knew. The ground offensive launched in the last 60 hours of the war ”did not achieve any military objective, nor did it fulfil its potential”.

A total of 33 Israeli soldiers died, but the offensive did not reduce the number of Katyusha rockets falling on northern Israel, and it was also unclear how it affected the position of the Lebanese government or Hizbullah on a ceasefire. Crucially, though, Winograd’s commission found that the launching of the ground offensive in the waning hours of the war was essential, and that the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, acted on an ”honest assessment” of Israel’s interests as the United Nations was brokering a ceasefire.

The war has already claimed two scalps, those of the former defence minister Amir Peretz and the army chief of staff Dan Halutz. In any other democracy it would have claimed a third: that of the prime minister. But Olmert has made it clear that he will not resign, and on Wednesday his allies were even claiming he had been vindicated in the final part of the report.

The reason why a weak coalition, led by an unpopular prime minister and a bad war leader, continues to survive is almost entirely negative. There are, as yet, few serious challengers. If an election were held tomorrow the chief beneficiary would be the Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, and so it is in the interests of both Kadima and Labour to struggle on with each other in some form. And rumours of a putsch within Kadima to oust Olmert as leader seem premature. Olmert’s departure would also have grave consequences for peace talks with the Palestinians. As it is, the expectations of the process launched in Annapolis last year are low enough. But fresh elections would lower them further by producing a government with even less room to manoeuvre than Olmert currently has.

The Winograd report did not look into the death and destruction Israel wreaked in Lebanon in reaction to the kidnapping of two soldiers, who remain captive. More than 1 000 Lebanese died, many of them civilians, and 158 Israelis, two-thirds of them soldiers. Hizbullah continues to say the lesson of the conflict was that the mightiest army in the region could be withstood. True, Hassan Nasrallah’s forces have been pushed back beyond the Litani River but, as Olmert himself has said, they now have more long-range rockets that can hit deep inside Israel. There is no doubt, he said, that Hizbullah has become stronger.

Such realism does not promote new thinking inside Israel — rather the opposite. This week Olmert’s spokesperson was quoted as saying that the prime minister’s office was breathing a sigh of relief. The Israeli military said it had taken on board the criticisms from the Winograd commission long ago and was going through a period of new training and planning. In other words, if the second Lebanon war damaged Israel’s military reputation and deterrent power in the region, it was time to restore it. This is not the only conclusion that can be drawn. A nation has to defend itself from missiles raining down on its territory. But it also has to search for political solutions when the military ones repeatedly prolong the endless cycle of death and retribution. At present Olmert is set to hunker down behind fences and walls, content to engage in talks in the knowledge that nothing will really change. Israel needs a bigger, bolder leader than that. It needs a true leader who can resurrect peace out of the ashes of war.

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