Official Panel Accuses Israeli Leaders Of Multiple Failures in Lebanon War

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

JERUSALEM, April 30 -- An official Israeli investigative committee on Monday accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of "a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence" in taking the country to war in Lebanon last summer.

The interim findings of the Winograd Committee also sharply criticized Defense Minister Amir Peretz for not grasping "the basic principles of using military force to achieve political goals" and accused Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army chief of staff at the time, of acting "impulsively" in advocating an "immediate, intensive military strike" to secure the release of two captured Israeli soldiers.

The findings amount to a harsh indictment of some of Israel's most respected institutions and the people who lead them, portraying the Jewish state's military commanders as complacent and its political leadership as rash and inexperienced.

The committee concluded that Israel's army "was not ready for this war" and blamed Halutz for failing to devise an effective strategy or to make Olmert aware of sharp disagreements within the military over how to achieve Israel's goals against Hezbollah's guerrilla force.

"After 25 years without a war, Israel experienced a war of a different kind," said Eliyahu Winograd, a retired judge, presenting conclusions that focused on the decision to go to war and the first days of fighting. "The war thus brought back to center stage some critical questions that parts of Israeli society would prefer to avoid."

The committee is due to issue its final report this summer. But its preliminary findings describe an Israeli government that lacked a plan to achieve goals characterized as "too ambitious," suffered from a lack of military experience among civilian leaders and was undermined by a general staff that failed to adapt on the battlefield after its strategy showed early signs of failure. The report used the word "failure" dozens of times in connection with the prime minister and said Olmert bore "supreme and comprehensive responsibility for the decisions of his government and the operations of the army."

The panel said it would leave to the public the question of whether Olmert should step down. The report prompted calls for Olmert's resignation.

In a televised response, Olmert said that "it would be wrong to resign." He described the conclusions as "severe" and acknowledged that "serious mistakes have been made by the leadership that I head."

"These mistakes must be corrected, and I intend to do so thoroughly," Olmert said, adding that he will appoint a cabinet committee to implement the report's recommendations, which center on improving communication within the government and giving the Foreign Ministry a more active role in times of war.

Although he is deeply unpopular with Israel's public, Olmert has built a broad coalition government that includes secular-centrist, hawkish Russian-immigrant and religious parties, none of which appeared ready to bolt following the report's release.

"If Olmert doesn't come to the conclusion that he should resign, the chances for him to maintain the current coalition are pretty good," said Gabriel Sheffer, a Hebrew University political science professor on sabbatical at Duke University. "Nobody in the coalition is very interested in having new elections. The decision is in the hands of Olmert."

Olmert appointed the panel, comprising a retired judge, two retired generals, a law professor and a political science professor, in September to evaluate Israel's performance during the 33-day war against Hezbollah. Olmert did so rather than call on Israel's Supreme Court to name a state inquiry commission, such as those that followed Israel's two most recent wars, in 1973 and 1982. State commissions hold more legal authority, and in the past they have forced the resignation of Israeli ministers.

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