An Israeli government probe of the summer war in Lebanon said Monday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was responsible for “very severe failures” in the conflict, using harsher-than-expected language that dealt a blow to his efforts to hang on to office.
The long-awaited report said Olmert hastily led the country into conflict against Hezbollah guerrillas without a comprehensive plan, exercised poor judgment and bore ultimate responsibility for a war that Israelis widely fear has emboldened the country’s enemies.
Olmert, who has already faced strident calls for resignation from his political opponents, said the “failures will be remedied” while vowing to remain prime minister.
PM digs in his heels
“It would not be correct to resign, and I have no intention of resigning,” he said in a brief televised statement from his office. Instead, he said, he would work to implement the conclusions of the inquiry, calling a special Cabinet session for Wednesday to begin the work.
Olmert’s hold on office seems steady for now. He controls a large majority in parliament, and his coalition partners are wary of doing anything that could force new elections that opinion polls say would be won by the conservative Likud Party led by hard-line former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, Olmert’s own party could turn on him and pressure him to quit. If that happened, his popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, would likely step in to replace him. A big public outcry could add to the pressure, and an anti-Olmert rally was scheduled Thursday.
The report capped a six-month investigation into the war, which has been widely perceived as a failure by the Israeli public. Olmert appointed the five-member investigative panel in September to stave off criticism, but it has no authority to force anyone to resign.
The war erupted July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas killed three soldiers and captured two others in a cross-border raid. In 34 days of fighting, Israel failed to retrieve the captured soldiers, destroy Hezbollah or prevent the group from firing thousands of rockets into Israel.
Between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants were killed in the fighting, as were 119 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians, according to official figures from the two sides.
During the 34-day conflict, the government was criticized for its failure to halt the Hezbollah rocket fire and Israeli soldiers returning from the battle front complained of poor preparations, conflicting orders and shortages of food and supplies.
Olmert has repeatedly called the war a success, claiming Israel inflicted heavy damage on Hezbollah and welcoming the U.N.-brokered truce that ended the fighting. The truce forced Hezbollah away from the border and brought thousands of international peacekeepers to the area.
Blame mostly laid at Olmert's feet
In its scathing conclusion, the commission laid ultimate responsibility for the war’s shortcomings on Olmert.
“The prime minister bears supreme and comprehensive responsibility for the decisions of ’his’ government and the operations of the army,” the report said.
“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. Also, his decision was made without close study of the complex features of the Lebanon front and of the military, political and diplomatic options available to Israel.”
It also criticized Defense Minister Amir Peretz for his inexperience and said the wartime military chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, “acted impulsively,” misrepresented the army’s readiness and suppressed dissenting opinions.
“If any one of them had acted better ... the outcome of the campaign would have been different and better,” Eliyahu Winograd, the retired judge who led the investigation, said as he read the conclusions at a news conference broadcast live on all Israeli TV channels.
... But others censured as well
The report did not call for the resignation of any of Israel’s top leaders, but left none unscathed.
Peretz “did not have knowledge or experience in military, political or governmental matters,” it said. Halutz “failed in his duties as commander in chief ... and exhibited flaws in professionalism, responsibility and judgment,” it added.
The committee also came down hard on the Cabinet for relying too heavily on the army’s recommendations and not pressing for an alternative course of action. “The ministers voted for a vague decision without understanding and knowing its nature and implications,” Winograd said.
After receiving the report Monday, a haggard-looking Olmert pledged to act immediately “to learn the lessons, to correct failures and ensure that in every possible future threat facing the state of Israel the failures and the defects that you point to will be remedied.”
Peretz told a Kadima Party meeting Monday evening stressed that the commission did not call for an election, according to a participant, who agreed to describe the closed meeting only if not quoted by name.
Peretz opposed doing that because “new elections would show the Arab world that we are falling apart, and they would bring us down to an unprecedented low point,” the participant.
Halutz, who resigned in January after months of criticism, is studying in the U.S. In a statement released by the military, he said he hoped that Israelis would use the Winograd report to focus on “implementing the lessons and not personal struggles.”
Hezbollah hails inquiry
In Lebanon, Hezbollah welcomed the critical findings.
The report “confirmed the inability of the Israeli political and military leadership to take the appropriate decision to confront Hezbollah during the summer war,” said Sheik Hassan Ezzeddine, Hezbollah’s most senior political officer in southern Lebanon.
Olmert and Peretz, who took office with limited security experience less than two months before the war, already lost much of their public support because of the conflict, even without the report.
Israel went to war hours after the July 12 kidnapping. Relying heavily on airstrikes recommended by his army chief, Olmert pledged at the time that Israel would crush Hezbollah and force the return of the captured soldiers. Neither goal was accomplished.
Instead, Hezbollah pounded northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets, halting only after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire was imposed. Israel launched a late, costly ground offensive just as the Security Council neared completion of its cease-fire resolution.
Even if Olmert remains in office, his weak stature could limit his ability to push forward with peace efforts with the Palestinians.
“We hope that this report and the findings of this report will not further complicate and hinder attempts to revive the peace process,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.