Government On Ropes After Report Condemns Olmert And
Peretz Over Lebanon War
By Jean Shaoul &
04 May, 2007
interim report of the Winograd Commission into Israel’s initial
conduct of its 33-day war against Lebanon in July and August last year
has lambasted the country’s political and military leadership
for what is regarded within ruling circles as a debacle.
The report singles out Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Amir Peretz and the now retired
chief of staff, Dan Halutz, for the failure of Israel’s military
forces to rescue the two soldiers seized by Hezbollah—the ostensible
purpose of the war. The report stops short of calling for Olmert or
Peretz to step down.
The commission’s main
criticism is that the war did not achieve the stated aims of freeing
the captured soldiers and stopping Hezbollah from firing rockets into
Israel. But the commission then makes numerous criticisms as to the
actual conduct of the ground offensive that was mounted, its lack of
preparation, and how this proved detrimental to securing the release
of those detained.
The commission is unable
to explain these errors, however, because it must remain silent on the
war’s real objective—the elimination of Hezbollah as a fighting
or political force within Lebanon, for which the seizure of Israeli
personnel only provided a casus belli.
This aim was in turn part
of a wider objective in which Lebanon was to be reduced to a vassal
of the United States and Israel, and ultimately “regime change”
achieved in Syria and Iran, thus ensuring Israel’s position in
this oil-rich region as Washington’s policeman. US Secretary of
State Condoleeza Rice had admitted as much when she called the war part
of the creation of a “new Middle East.”
Neither does the commission
have anything to say about Israel’s disproportionate response
to the abductions: the destruction of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure—its
roads, bridges, power stations, water treatment plants—and the
murderous aerial bombardment of Shia towns and villages in the south
of the country. These were war crimes committed against a defenceless
civilian population. The commission is likewise silent about the appalling
and unequal death toll: more than 1,200 Lebanese killed with many more
injured, compared to 160 Israelis.
The setting up of the commission
was an attempt by Olmert to limit the political fallout from the war.
One of several minor inquiries set up to examine operational aspects
of the war, its five members were handpicked by the Olmert government,
and its original chairman was the former head of Mossad, Israel’s
Eliyahu Winograd, an 81-year-old
judge, was only brought in to head up the commission to deflect criticism
after tens of thousands of people went onto the streets of Tel Aviv
in September to call for the widening of the commission’s terms
of reference and to demand a national commission of inquiry. Such an
inquiry would have had the power to demand the sacking of ministers,
as had the Kahan Commission in 1983 after it found Defence Minister
Sharon personally responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian
refugees in Sabra and Shatilla, in the suburbs of Beirut, by Israel’s
fascist allies—the Phalange.
Despite its limited remit,
the commission’s report has serious repercussions for Olmert’s
Kadima-led coalition with Labour.
While much of the report’s
250 pages remain classified, its conclusion sets out the real concerns
of the Zionist elite about the armed forces. It states that Israel’s
armed forces were “not ready for this war. Some of the political
and military elites in Israel have reached the conclusion that Israel
is beyond the era of wars; that it had enough military might and superiority
to deter others from declaring war against her; these would also be
sufficient to send a painful reminder to anyone who seemed to be undeterred;
since Israel did not intend to initiate a war, the conclusion was that
the main challenge facing the land forces would be low intensity asymmetrical
This raises “questions
that stand at the centre of our existence here as a Jewish and democratic
state,” the report states.
It continues, “The
primary responsibility for these serious failings rests with the prime
minister, the minister of defence and the [outgoing] chief of staff...
“The prime minister
bears supreme and comprehensive responsibility for the decisions of
‘his’ government and the operations of the army,”
the report states. “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. He was responsible
for the fact that the goals of the campaign were not set out clearly
and carefully, and there was no serious discussion of the relationship
between these goals and the authorised modes of military action.”
It continues, “In making
the decision to go to war, the government did not consider the whole
range of options, including that of continuing the policy of ‘containment,’
or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below
the ‘escalation level,’ or military preparations without
immediate military action—so as to maintain for Israel the full
range of responses to the abduction.”
The report criticises Chief
of Staff Halutz for acting “impulsively.” He “did
not alert the political echelon to the serious shortcomings in the preparedness
and the fitness of the armed forces for an extensive ground operation.”
The commission states that
Defence Minister Peretz lacked military, political and governmental
knowledge and experience, and “failed in fulfilling his functions.”
Much of the criticism of
Olmert and Peretz centres around or alludes to their non-military background.
In effect, the commission is demanding that only senior military figures
are capable of holding the top jobs in government. It also urges that
Israel’s land-based forces be expanded in expectation of long
ground operations in the future, irrespective of the wishes of the broad
mass of the population. It presages huge political and economic struggles
The report, coming after
the war against Lebanon, has done far more than place a question mark
over the survival of Olmert, Peretz and the government. It has brought
to a head a long-term political crisis within the Israeli state as a
The failed war against Hezbollah
demonstrated the underlying weakness and vulnerability not only of Israel’s
political leadership but its military, intelligence and civil defence
services under conditions where new strikes against Hezbollah and even
military action against Iran are in active preparation by Washington
services underestimated Hezbollah’s fighting capacity, the number
and range of their missiles and the efficiency and effectiveness of
their fighters, as well as the support they commanded within Lebanon.
The military had relied, the commission notes, on massive aerial bombardment
to achieve its ends. But as the United States and Britain found to their
cost in Iraq, this proved inadequate to the task of subduing the population.
And, again as in Iraq, their ground forces were simply not up to the
Israel’s military has
grown used to fighting low-intensity operations against unarmed or poorly
armed Palestinians, where brutality directed against a poorly equipped
irregular force and unarmed civilians is the order of the day. In Lebanon
it was not prepared, equipped and trained for long land-based operations
against a more substantial military opponent. Moreover, a largely conscript
army of young people, supplemented by older reservists, contained many
soldiers that did not agree with going to war in Lebanon and did not
want to fight in it.
This last factor in particular
is rooted in the phenomenal growth of social differences in Israel as
a result of the free-market policies pursued by successive governments.
This has objectively weakened the strength of the demand for national
and political unity against those deemed to be the external “enemies”
of the Jewish people, which is the essential foundation of Zionism.
This social schism is even
revealed in the state of Israel’s civil defences: its shelters
and supplies in the northern cities and towns that came under attack
from Hezbollah’s rockets. Civil defences, along with all essential
public services, have all but disappeared as privatisation, deregulation
and financial cutbacks, not to mention bribery and corruption, have
taken their toll. This meant that while those citizens who had the money
or family and friends in the south with whom they could take shelter
fled, the poor and the elderly were left with little or no protection
or supplies. In addition, the majority of Israel’s Arab citizens
live in the north, and it was they who suffered disproportionately from
It was the government’s
callous indifference to the plight of its citizens that was one of the
most important factors contributing to the popular pressure for a commission
of inquiry. Needless to say, these issues did not figure in the report
delivered by the Winograd Commission.
Already hit hard by high-profile
corruption scandals, Olmert has the lowest popularity ratings—at
3 percent—of any Israeli prime minister. Although admitting that
the report was “grave” and “harsh,” he has refused
to resign. But the demand for him to do so has been raised across the
political spectrum, including by his likely successor as leader of Kadima,
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
So far, however, only 3 of
the party’s 29 parliamentarians have failed to back Olmert. Their
fear is that if he goes now then the government too might fall. The
Labour Party has not as yet called for his resignation, given their
own involvement in the Lebanon debacle.
Labour leader and Defence
Minister Amir Peretz failed to attend yesterday’s special Knesset
session to discuss the Winograd report, and there is speculation that
he could resign shortly. Regardless, he will most likely be replaced
as Labour leader after internal elections later this month, where the
victor is likely to be either former prime minister Ehud Barak or retired
admiral and former Shin Bet internal security chief Ami Ayalon. Labour
might even have to pull out of the coalition altogether, calculating
that a loss of office is better than association with Kadima at this
Ayalon has pledged that he
will withdraw the Labour ministers from the coalition if Olmert does
not quit. There is great reluctance to take such a step, given indications
that the main political beneficiary of Kadima’s difficulties thus
far has been the right-wing opposition Likud, under Binyamin Netanyahu.
Kadima split from Likud under Ariel Sharon just over two years ago.
This is not a mark of Netenyahu’s popularity. He is widely hated
and has the backing of only a quarter of respondents in a recent Channel
2 poll. But his opponents in Kadima and Labour have even less support.
Yesterday evening tens of
thousands attended a demonstration in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv calling
for the resignation of Olmert and Peretz. One of its main organisers
was former national security adviser Uzi Dayan, head of the Tafnit party/movement.
Claiming to be non-political, the rally’s function was in fact
to channel inchoate opposition to war and cuts in social programs into
the same conduits as right-wing forces demanding the more efficient
conduct of warfare and an escalation of Jewish settlement construction
in the Occupied Territories.
Politicians were not allowed
to speak at the rally but were asked to attend in support. If this decision
had not been taken, Netanyahu would have been a featured speaker.
The rogues gallery now assembling
to offer themselves as replacements for Olmert and Peretz—internally
and on the opposition benches—testify to the absence of any genuine
vehicle to express the social and democratic concerns of Israeli workers.
On the war question, the only lesson that Israel’s ruling elite
wants to be drawn is that the preparation for further acts of aggression
in the Middle East must be better planned and carried through to a successful
conclusion in alliance with the US. It will be ordinary Israeli citizens
and the peoples of the Middle East that will pay the bloody price.
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