February 2, 2008

February 2, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East

The Real World: Olmert's Reprieve

Amid a rare Jerusalem snowstorm the Winograd Commission, named after its chairman, retired Tel-Aviv district court president judge Eliyahu Winograd, has finally publicized its much-expected final report about the performance of the Israeli government and armed services during the war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

However, this storm may not sweep Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from office, at least not for now. The media is focusing on the fact that the commission did not explicitly recommend that Olmert take personal responsibility for the grave mistakes and mismanagement which characterized Israel's Second Lebanon War and resign.

The media is missing, however, that a mature and robust democracy is unafraid of systematic self-examination, and how this orderly effort may prevent the disastrous mistakes that cost hundreds of lives in 2006 - and could cost more in the future.

It is inconceivable that such a commission would be allowed to function freely and publicly anywhere else in the Middle East. However, it is also inconceivable that in a modern parliamentary democracy a popularly elected leader, who so ineptly plunged his country into a war, and demonstrated a total lack of strategic skill and judgment, could nevertheless stay in office. Yet, this is what is happening so far.

The interim Winograd Commission report released in May of last year specified that Olmert bears overall responsibility for his cabinet's and the military's poor performance. He made "mistaken and hasty judgments and did not manage the events, but was dragged along by the army. Olmert did not ask the army for alternative plans to those presented and did not ask the right questions," the report stated.

The Winograd report 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.

Olmert is not alone in carrying the blame. The commission was also scathing in its criticism of former military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, who believed - like some in the United States - that an air force can be the primary tool for fighting terrorists. At least Halutz has resigned. The commission poured devastating criticism on the ex-defense minister, Amir Peretz, who also resigned last year. A former trade union leader, Peretz lacked a military background and failed "to learn about the military," once he became defense minister. Тhe commission noted that Peretz should have never accepted the appointment as defense minister to begin with - something every child in Israel already knew.

The commission also pointed a finger at former Labor prime minister, Ehud Barak, who presided over the hasty pull-out from Lebanon in 2000, which led to Hezbollah's unchecked presence on Israel's northern border. Barak is orchestrating his comeback as a future Labor prime minister - after mishandling the Camp David II peace process and being singularly ineffective in the early days of the second intifada.

So far, Olmert has survived despite the fire from the commission аnd other quarters, including multiple police investigations and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. Аccusations against Olmert range from abuse of power and corruption to illegal real estate transactions.

Israel's current political leadership is endangering the nation's precarious security. The country's secular leftist elites live amid dreams of a "peace process" shared by the cocktail circuit with their diplomatic counterparts from the European Union and the United Nations.

Israel's Tel Aviv-centric elite, including generals, journalists, politicians and academics, well-meaning and idealistic though they may be, are ignoring the rising tide of political Islam - both Sunni and Shiites - that is sweeping the region, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel has also failed to design an antidote to their effective propaganda machines.

Finger-pointing has prevented the Israeli military from implementing the lessons learned from the two Hezbollah wars. The Second Lebanon war and U.S. and NATO troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate how hard it is for Western nation-states to defeat radical sub-state and transnational actors.

Nevertheless, the Winograd Commission had some words of wisdom which should resonate anywhere in the world as free, modern - and moderate - societies are threatened by those who want to destroy them and impose harsh and fanatical ways in their stead.

The wisdom is that the Second Lebanon War has brought again to the foreground, for thought and discussion, issues that some parts of Israeli society had preferred to suppress. This is that Israel cannot survive in this region and cannot live in it in peace, or at least non-war, unless people in Israel itself and in its surroundings believe that Israel has the political and military leadership, military capabilities, and social robustness that will allow her to deter which neighbors wish to harm her, and to prevent them - if necessary through the use of military force - from achieving their goal.

These truths do not depend on one's partisan or political views. Israel must - politically and morally - seek peace with its neighbors and make necessary compromises. At the same time, seeking peace or managing the conflict must come from a position of social, political and military strength, and through the ability and willingness to fight for the state, its values and the security of its population even in the absence of peace.

These truths have profound and far-reaching implications for many dimensions of life in Israel and the ways its challenges are managed. Beyond examining the way the Lebanon War was planned and conducted; beyond the examination of flaws in decision-making and performance that had been revealed in it - important as they may be; these are the central questions that the Lebanon war has raised. These are issues that lie at the very essence of our existence here as a Jewish and democratic state. These are the questions we need to concentrate on.

Israel today is led by a prime minister who sorely lacks the public trust and is barely capable of functioning. His approval is in the single digits. A large majority of Israelis want him to resign. The U.S. George W. Bush administration, however, is clinging to Olmert even in his flagging coalition. The administration hopes that Olmert will deliver on the Annapolis process and an agreement with Palestinian president, Abu Mazen, can be reached before Bush leaves office. The chances this actually happening are not good. But even if an agreement is reached, unfortunately the contours of the next war - against Hamas and Hezbollah - are already on the horizon.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the Middle East