May 5, 2007

May 5, 2007 | Commentary on

Israeli inquiry aftershocks

The Winograd Commission, named after its chairman, retired Tel Aviv District Court judge Eliyahu Winograd, released a political bombshell this past Sunday -- its report on Israel's conduct of the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer. 

This massive "explosive device" is likely to blow up the Israeli political establishment and send Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, his Kadima (Forward) Party, and Amir Perets, the incompetent Labor Party leader and defense minister, packing. 

In a nutshell, the commission declared Mr. Olmert failed as prime minister to lead the wartime decisionmaking process. It also diagnosed -- correctly -- the main disease of the Israeli politico-military elite: lack of a strategic doctrine "in the fullest sense of the term." Israel has suffered from this malady since facing the deathly strategic surprise of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 

The commission also pointed a finger at former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who presided over the hasty pull-out from Lebanon in 2000, leading to Hezbollah's unchecked presence on Israel's northern border. Mr. Barak now plans to replace the tainted Mr. Peretz and stage a comeback as a Labor leader and defense minister. 

Mr. Olmert, the interim report said, bears overall responsibility for his Cabinet's and the military's performance. He made "mistaken and hasty judgments and did not manage the events, but was dragged along by the army. Mr. Olmert did not ask the army for alternative plans to those presented and did not ask the right questions," the draft report stated. 

The commission was also scathing in its criticism of former military chief of staff, Air Force Gen. Dan Halutz, who dismissed the threat of Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah, and of Mr. Peretz, the former trade union leader, who lacked a military background and failed "to learn about the military," once he became defense minister. In fact, the commission noted, Mr. Peretz should have never accepted the appointment as defense minister -- something every child in Israel already knows. 

These are only the Olmert-appointed commission's preliminary findings. The real punch will come this summer, when the final report is due. Then, the commission is likely to place personal responsibility directly at the feet of the failed leadership. Mr. Olmert is unlikely to survive that, despite his tendency to cling to power. 

Today, Israel is like a rudderless ship, with Mr. Olmert not only under fire from the Winograd Commission, but under multiple police investigations and subject to severe criticism from State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. Accusations against him range from abuse of power and corruption to illegal real estate transactions. 

The decades of failed Israeli political leadership is endangering the nation's precarious security. The country's secular leftist elites live amidst dreams of a "peace process" shared by the cocktail circuit with their diplomatic counterparts from the European Union and the United Nations. Tony Tel-Aviv lefties, well-meaning and idealistic -- generals, journalists, politicians and academics -- ignore the rising tide of political Islam, Sunni and Shia, sweeping the region. This is the same elite that failed to design a workable strategy through which Israel's once-capable military and security services can face off against heavily armed and well-motivated terror armies, such as Hamas or Hezbollah. Israel has also failed to design an antidote to the Arabs' effective propaganda machines. 

The postwar shell-shock fosters finger-pointing, which has prevented the Israeli military from using the lessons learned from the Hezbollah war. 

This is the first war many Arabs say the Jewish State lost. Hezbollah in Beirut has welcomed the report, claiming it proves Hezbollah "won." Beyond that, both the Hezbollah war and U.S. difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate how hard it is for Western nation-states to defeat radical Muslim substate actors. 

Israelis are led by a prime minister who sorely lacks public trust and can barely function. His approval is in the single digits, while Mr. Peretz as defense minister is the national butt of jokes. Any anti-terrorist action Mr. Olmert may need to take in the future could be seen as a "wag the dog" diversion from the devastating criticism of the Winograd report. 

Israel is also "missing" its finance minister, who resigned due to corruption proceedings, and lacks a president, who is under police investigation for sexual harassment and influence peddling. This is the worst government crisis in the 59-year history of the reborn state. 

The worst thing the Bush administration can do is cling to Mr. Olmert and his flagging coalition. These are political corpses floating in the stormy waters of Israeli politics. They may not know it, but they are politically dead and should be left alone. 

The U.S. needs an Israel that can defend itself and effectively work with Washington in the increasingly unstable Middle East. To achieve this, Israel needs to go through a period of political cleansing and rebirth. The Israeli society is vital and robust enough to do it -- with no external interventions.


Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of "Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis" (1998).

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in Washington times