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Winograd Repercussions at First Glance

5 May 2007

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s decision to establish the Winograd Committee to investigate the failures of the Second Lebanon War was the correct decision for two main reasons. Committee members are experienced, intelligent and honest with chairman Judge Eliahu Winograd especially fitting for the job. But more significantly it is not a judicial forum with legal powers as were the Agranat (Yom Kippur War of 1973) and Kahn (first Lebanon War of 1982) Commissions of Inquiry.

Rather Winograd was established to scrutinize failure in Israeli preparedness and decision making during the summer conflict with the Hezbollah. The Committee is not expected to demand resignations but instead to set the record straight, expose failures and suggest avenues for their correction. The top military and political leadership did not view the Committee as a court of law but rather as a panel of investigation. Olmert appointed the panel over the objections of critics from the Left, Right, military reserves and those demanding “responsible government”. They preferred a judicial commission “with teeth”. Whether by design or not, leaving the judiciary powers out kept the Committee clean, since as most Israelis know, the Supreme Court is identified as left wing secular for the most part. The Winograd Committee cannot be tainted with such a brush.

With its interim report published and made public on April 30 the Committee was damning in its evaluation of military and civilian preparation for such a conflict while condemning the government for not coordinating war objectives with the IDF. The main culprits are PM Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. So far the investigation includes only the first five days of the war, considered the most “successful” phase although the word “failure” hovers above the entire document.

The Committee now leaves it to the political arena to make corrections and/or force a change in government although the final report will only be issued in July. After all, the 120 member Knesset was voted in by “the people” just last March 28 and the Kadima led coalition formed exactly a year ago. “The People” are sovereign and are now left the choice of forcing the government from power through massive demonstrations and petitions, or not. “The People” must decide, not the unelected judiciary or Supreme Court who would have been responsible for selecting a Commission of Inquiry (such as Agranat and Kahn). On Thursday 100,000 demonstrated in Tel Aviv demanding the government’s resignation. It depends on “the people” if this signals the beginning of the end for the Olmert government. The confrontation is between the electorate (not the judiciary) and its government.

So will Olmert’s government fall? It is impossible to know but the damning facts as exposed by the Committee make it difficult for the PM to continue. Defense Minister Peretz announced he will leave office and demand the treasury as the Finance Minister Avraham Hirshzon, facing criminal charges for theft of public funds, is expected to leave office shortly.

Replacing Olmert is another issue. Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, seen as Ms. Clean appears as the popular choice for many. However, she has little ministerial experience and was not involved in crisis management. The Winograd report did not find fault with her behavior during the Second Lebanon War which may be a plus, but a closer look raises questions as to why she did not take more responsibility and force her way into the decision making process. Absence or avoidance of responsibility during a crisis does not prove leadership capabilities. The Winograd findings placed much blame for this summer’s debacle on the lack of experience of both Olmert and Peretz. Today Livni has little more experience than she did ten months ago.

The fall back position is to elect veteran 84 year old Shimon Peres with 55 years of political know-how. Peres is trying to stay out of the limelight but many see him as the automatic plug-in. Although he never won an election he was Labor PM from 1984-86 in the National Unity Government (NUG) with Yitzchak Shamir and the Likud after a dead heat tie in the balloting. During his term inflation was reduced from 450% to 20% and Israel withdrew to the security zone in south Lebanon. His second time in office came after Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995 but he lost the election to Benyamin Netanyahu in May 1996 as a result of Palestinian terror attacks (Feb. – March 1996) and Operation Grapes of Wrath against the Hezbollah in April. Over the years Peres held the defense (1974-77), finance (1988 – 90) and foreign ministry portfolios (1992 – 95).

Experience he has, but what of his policies? As architect of the Oslo Accords he is faulted for the subsequent Palestinian violence and many declare him to be overly naïve for having trusted Yasir Arafat. He believed in a secular-democratic “New Middle East”. Instead there is a different “New Middle East”, jihadist - Khomeinist.

Peres has made it clear that neither the Hamas nor the Hezbollah are negotiating partners, but is he overly dependent on the success of the Palestinian secularists such as Fatah (many of whom also want to destroy Israel) and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the Seniora government in Lebanon. Fatah and Abbas have virtually no power and Seniora may have half the country behind him, but that is the same half with little weapons or military experience.

And what of Assad, Syria and the Golan? With Damascus it is all or nothing – would he withdraw from the Golan for “peace” with Syria? The Right cannot make too much noise here, Netanyahu negotiated on that principle when he was PM from 1996 – 99. Most importantly, is there any reason to negotiate with Syria at all? Syria is an ardent supporter of the Hezbollah, Hamas and other Islamic terror organizations working against Israel, the US and the West. Furthermore, who would understand best how to handle the rise of a radical eastern front led by a rejuvenated Islamist Iran after the American withdrawal from Iraq? On the European front Peres has excellent relations with EU leaders and is on speaking terms with the European Left, very helpful when dealing with Damascus and the Palestinians.

Peres is mum at the moment and everyone is clueless as to what Livni would do. Being that the coalition partners do not want elections where Netanyahu and the Likud could come to power should the coalition collapse, many are moving to the fall back position of crowning Shimon Peres as prime minister in the hope he will steady the ship but not take too many “initiatives.” Peres thought he was looking at a ceremonial presidential term for the next seven years but instead he may become premier for a third time at just one more crucial juncture in Israel’s history.