Ehud Olmert not to blame

Other News Materials 1 February 2008 13:49 (UTC +04:00)

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maria Appakova) - For more than a year Israelis were waiting for the official results of the inquiry into the actions of their leaders during the war against Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

The long-awaited report by the commission headed by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd appeared on Wednesday. However, it does not answer the main question: who is to blame for the failures of the Israeli army?

The Israelis placed the blame for the failures in the war with former Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, ex-Defense Minister and former leader of the Labor Party Amir Peretz, and, of course, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The first two have already retired. The prime minister's critics have repeatedly made it clear that he should leave his position as well. The Winograd commission report was supposed to become an official excuse for his retirement.

The commission had to answer many questions. Who is to blame that the region's strongest army was not ready for the war? Why was the Lebanese Hezbollah movement shooting at Israel's northern regions and got away with it? Why did the Israeli government order a ground operation (in which about 30 Israeli soldiers lost their lives - a third of all casualties during the war) when it was already obvious that a ceasefire agreement was about to be signed and the Security Council was getting ready to pass a relevant resolution? The Israeli public has not received clear-cut answers to these and other questions.

Without mentioning a single name, the Winograd commission admitted that the political and military leaders made serious mistakes. Responsibility for them rests not only with those who headed the country during the war but with their predecessors as well. For Israel, where the political elite is not numerous, this means that practically everyone is to blame.

The report is compiled in a way that allows everyone to interpret it in line with one's interests. It is no surprise that Olmert and his entourage are happy about it, whereas their opponents think that it should serve as a ground for the government's resignation.

On the one hand, the commission maintains that Israel did not win the war, that serious mistakes were made, and that the ground operation was ineffective. On the other hand, it says that the leaders made decisions in Israel's interests proceeding from the information they had. Winograd calls the government's decision to embark on a major ground operation "almost inevitable" and "justified." Israel was not ready for war, but achieved some success in the diplomatic and other spheres.

At the same time, it would be incorrect to qualify the commission's conclusions as contradictory because they fully reflect the real situation. The results of the war are ambiguous - neither victory, nor defeat. But the public is not interested in a political discussion - it is out for blood. For it, Olmert's resignation would be a sign that the time of failure is over and all those guilty have been punished. This is the line of the opposition.

After Winograd read his report, the Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, demanded that Olmert step down. There are two options - either he resigns himself or the government coalition breaks down. But other participants in the coalition - Shas and the Labor Party - did not dare sever their alliance with the prime minister's Kadima party.

However, Labor leader Ehud Barak may change his mind. On the eve of his election to this position, he promised to leave the government immediately after the publication of Winograd's report. No matter how much he may wish to keep his post as defense minister, it would still be worse to lose the trust of his voters on the eve of early parliamentary elections, which are quite likely. For Barak, Olmert's voluntary resignation would be the best scenario. But the prime minister is not ready to leave. In this situation Barak can also forget his promise because the report does not contain a clear-cut verdict on Olmert's guilt.

The problem is not limited to ministerial portfolios. The future of the Palestinian-Israeli talks also depends on the political developments in Israel.

U.S. President George W. Bush promised that a Palestinian state will be set up, and a peace agreement will be concluded between it and Israel by the end of this year. Olmert is ready for this and understands that peace will require serious concessions. This is the reason why a number of Israeli left-wing politicians who are advocating talks with the Palestinians do not want Olmert to resign, although they strongly criticized him during the Lebanese campaign and after it. They reason that past mistakes cannot thwart hopes for peace.

The problem is that compromises which will suit the Palestinians (primarily on Jerusalem) may again shatter Olmert's government. The Shas party threatens to leave the coalition if the prime minister agrees to the partition of Jerusalem. However, on the eve of the report's publication, Shas religious leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called the prime minister to support him. The Israeli media assume that in response the prime minister promised the Shas party to delay the discussion of the issue, which is of such concern to its members and the majority of Israelis, at the negotiations with the Palestinians. But is this possible? Olmert does not dictate the agenda of the talks.

Thus, even if Olmert survives the post-Wingorad report attack against his government, he will be in for a hard time. During the Palestinian-Israeli talks he will be inevitably faced with a possible breaking of the coalition. It all depends on what the Israelis want. Do they trust Olmert? Do they want to accept peace from a politician with whom they link the most tragic events of the past few years? What price are they ready to pay for peace?

As long as Hezbollah, inspired by the Winograd report, keeps shouting about Israel's defeat in the war, and as long as Palestinian militants continue shooting at Israel from the Gaza Strip, the Israelis are not likely to agree to compromise. Even if Israel did not win in 2006, Hezbollah, Palestinians and other Arabs did not win, either. Nor peace has become any closer.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of Trend