Olmert survives despite criticism over conduct of Lebanon war

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The Independent Online

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was determined to stay in office last night despite a stark official critique of the deficient decision-making, military unpreparedness, and absence of clear strategy in the Lebanon war he waged 18 months ago.

The Israeli government's and military management of the 34-day conflict is described as a "serious missed opportunity" in the final report from the Winograd Commission, which provides the first authoritative acknowledgement that "it failed to win" the war. But with members of his ruling Kadima party expected to rally round him, Mr Olmert showed every sign last night of resisting a chorus of opposition calls to step down in response to a scathing account of the "flaws and failings" in the war that began after Hizbollah abducted two Israeli reservists in July 2006.

This confronts Mr Olmert's most immediately dangerous political rival, the Defence minister and Labour leader Ehud Barak, with the risk of triggering elections and handing power to the right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu if he carries out his threat, made last May, to leave the coalition after Winograd reported. Mr Olmert's position in his own party appeared to have been strengthened by the insistence of Judge Eliyahu Winograd last night that despite the signal failure of the bitterly controversial ground invasion launched in the last weekend of the war, the Prime Minister acted out of "a strong and sincere perception of what [he] thought at the time was Israel's interest".

The commission affirmed that the ground operation – which continued for two days after the UN Security Council agreed a peace resolution on the evening of 11 August and in which 33 Israeli soldiers were killed – "did not achieve its goals of limiting rocket fire and changing the picture of the war".

And in an implicit response to one of Mr Olmert's defences of the invasion – that it helped strengthen UN deliberations in Israel's favour – the report says: "It is not clear what the ground operation contributed to speeding up the diplomatic achievement or improving it."

The commission also say they failed to find any evidence of serious military or governmental consideration of whether it was "reasonable to expect military achievements within 60 hours", or of a discussion of stopping the military operation, after the Security Council resolution was adopted in New York on the Friday evening.

But disclosing that Mr Olmert was initially against the operation and that the then Defence minister, Amir Peretz, was in favour, it says that "on the basis of the facts before them" the goals of the ground invasion were "legitimate".

While the commission deliberately avoided holding individuals to account, it said last night that it did not back down from any of its judgements in the interim report, which charged the Israeli Prime Minister with a "serious failure". And it added that the fact of its not assigning responsibility "does not imply that no such responsibility exists".

It excoriated the "serious failures" of the government in not choosing between a short strike and a full scale, if temporary, ground occupation of southern Lebanon for a long period into the war, let alone at the outset. "Israel went to war before it decided what option to select, and without an exit strategy," it said.

But the Prime Minister's political position will also be helped by the large portion of blame laid by the commission at the Army's door for "its flawed performance" in a war in which: "A semi-military organisation of a few thousand men resisted for a few weeks the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full superiority and size and technology advantages. The barrage of rockets aimed at Israel's civilian population lasted throughout the war and the IDF did not provide an effective response to it."

The chief of staff, along with Mr Peretz, and several senior Israel Defence Force commanders, have all resigned since August 2006.

The commission's statement last night omitted any mention of civilian casualties in Lebanon – for which Israel faced widespread criticism during the war. Instead it contained a strong, if hawkish, message to the Israeli political and military establishment that its only hope of "peace or non-war" is if Israeli society and others in the region believe "Israel has the political and military capabilities... to deter... its neighbours."

Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli analyst, said the report was "anti-climactic", and did not "provide a slogan" under which opponents of Mr Olmert could rise against him. He said that if the report had personally "clobbered Olmert" it would leave Mr Barak with no choice but to carry out his threat to leave the coalition.

He added the report had left Mr Barak an opening to stay in the government by remaining silent over whether the IDF had yet made the repairs necessary to avoid repeating the failures of the Lebanon war. "Barak could say he will be the man to ensure that it does," he added.

The main criticisms

* "Israel did not use its military force well and effectively, despite the fact it was a limited war initiated by Israel itself."

* "The (Israeli military) failed to provide an effective military response to the challenge posed to it."

* "We found serious failings in preparedness, decision-making and performance in the military high command, especially in the ground force, and in in the lack of strategic thinking and planning in both the political and the military echelons."

* "The fact we refrained from imposing personal responsibility does not imply that no such responsibility exists."

* "Overall, we regard the Lebanon war as a serious missed opportunity. Israel initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory."

* "The barrage of rockets aimed at Israel's civilians lasted throughout the war and the military did not provide an effective response."

Read a full version of the report at independent.co.uk/winograd

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