Olmert's conduct of war faulted

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli government investigation into Israel's war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon harshly criticizes Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for many of the military campaign's failures, raising doubts about his ability to stay in power amid increasing calls for his resignation.

The much-anticipated report, which was released yesterday, accuses Olmert of "serious failure" for leading the country "hastily" into an over-ambitious, ill-conceived and costly conflict that left more than 1,000 civilians and combatants dead, most of them in Lebanon.

The report's release triggered renewed calls by Olmert's opponents for him to step down. Olmert, whose administration also is engulfed in sex and corruption scandals, is extremely unpopular, according to polls that have found 2 percent to 3 percent of the country supporting him.

"Olmert mustn't wait for the demonstrations and the calls of the bereaved families. If he has a drop of national responsibility, he will announce his resignation," Yossi Beilin, chairman of the left-wing Meretz party, said last night.

Olmert vowed last night to stay in his post.

"It would not be right to resign, and I don't intend to do so," he said. He acknowledged that "mistakes were made" during the war and promised to implement the report's recommendations.

Olmert's aides emphasized that blame for the war's errors should be shared.

"It is right to state as clearly as possible: The report lists difficulties, failures and mistakes by all the leaders, including the prime minister," Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon told Israel Radio. "The question is what do we do now."

The commission of inquiry also skewered Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, a former union leader who took office two months before the war, for his lack of military experience.

Sharp words were also directed at Daniel Halutz, who resigned Israel's army chief in January. The commission said he acted "impulsively" during the war, exhibiting "flaws in professionalism, responsibility and judgment."

Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah broke out July 12, after Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israelis soldiers and killed three other soldiers during a cross-border raid. During 34 days of fighting, Hezbollah launched more than 4,000 rockets at Israel, prompting the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from northern Israel.

Many think Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah emerged as hero and victor of the war because his guerrillas put up a stubborn fight against the well-trained well-equipped Israeli forces. Israeli forces were unable to crush Hezbollah or secure the release of the captured soldiers, Olmert's stated goals for the war.

Yesterday's report is an interim finding that covers the first six days of the war, starting with the capture of the soldiers, the government's decision to authorize a sharp military response and Olmert's speech outlining his goals for the war.

The commission also explored the rising tensions with Hezbollah along Israel's border with Lebanon during the six years since Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000.

The commission, chaired by Eliyahu Winograd, a former judge, is expected to release this summer a final report that will address, among other issues, Israel's decision to pursue a costly ground campaign in southern Lebanon and the terms of the United Nations cease-fire.

Although yesterday's report reveals little in the way of new details, the commission's public rebuke of Olmert's performance as prime minister re-energized his opponents' efforts to topple him.

"Today we have a prime minister and defense minister, and if they had to send soldiers to fight I'm not sure with what feeling the soldiers would have going out to the campaign," said Gilad Erdan, a member of the opposition Likud Party in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. "The prime minister and defense minister have to go home."

During the conflict, Israeli forces carried out airstrikes on Beirut's airport, bridges and infrastructure, and targeted Hezbollah strongholds, but they were helpless to stop Hezbollah's rocket barrages until a U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect Aug. 14.

Olmert's vulnerability has been intensely debate and speculated about in Israel. There is growing frustration even within his party, Kadima, and his ruling coalition because Olmert's troubles have been a drag on the government.

At the same time, there is little appetite in the Knesset or in the country as a whole for another election 13 months after the most recent one.

If an election were held now, polls suggest, it would be won by Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud and a former prime minister.

"My guess is, it's far from being over for Olmert. He is going to give us a very stubborn fight," says Avraham Diskin, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Public pressure has led other Israeli leaders to step down. Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, resigned after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

A state commission of inquiry into massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in the 1980s placed part of the blame on Ariel Sharon, then defense minister, who was dismissed.

The fate of Olmert and Peretz could depend on the turnout for a protest scheduled for Thursday. Organized by reservists and parents of soldiers killed during the war, it is aimed at forcing the prime minister and defense minister to resign.

A poll released last night on Israel Radio found that 69 percent of Israelis want Olmert out of office and 74 percent want Peretz to go.

"Olmert and Peretz are now at the situation where trust in them is at a low ebb," said Uzi Baram, a political analyst and former minister of tourism. "The question is whether this protest is passing or something permanent."


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