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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Three days to the final Winograd Report

On Wednesday at 5:00 PM the final report of the Winograd Commission which is looking into the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 will be issued. The interim report stirred up a brief firestorm, but Prime Minister Ehud K. Olmert managed to survive it. The interim report looked mainly at the decision-making process during the early days of the war. As it happens, I agreed with the decision to go to war (even if it was for the wrong reasons - we should have gone to war to take out the Hezbullah missiles in Lebanon and not to retrieve two kidnapped soldiers) so I had less of a problem with that than with what's upcoming.

What's upcoming is a report into the final ground assault that was launched as the United Nations Security Council was adopting resolution 1701, which ended the war. Olmert is accused of ordering that assault to make himself look good and to make it look as if the war accomplished something. Thirty-three soldiers died in that final assault. I have little doubt that the accusations are correct. But focusing on that assault begs the real questions as far as I am concerned. There are two other questions that the commission should be considering, and it remains to be seen whether one of them shows up in the report, the second one being outside the scope of the commission's mandate. The question that could still show up in the report is whether the government was wrong not to order a ground assault earlier. I believe that it was, although I believe that the air-only strategy the government had essentially adopted for the first several weeks of the war could have worked better if the government had been more willing to take chances with the lives of Lebanese civilians (and during the war, I advocated taking such chances as did most other Israelis). The other question - which is outside the scope of the commission's mandate, but which I hope it will comment on anyway, is the role of the flight from Lebanon in 2000 - led by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak - in Hezbullah's build-up and readiness for the 2006 war.

Having said all that, let's see which way the winds are blowing. Shas, which is still in the government today, is the master party at deciding when to leave a coalition in a manner in which they squeeze the maximum benefit for themselves by staying in the coalition as long as possible and then leave just at the point when the coalition goes too far. In 2000, Shas left the coalition the week before Ehud Barak went to Camp David to prevent him from handing over the Arab-populated neighborhoods of Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat. Shas is meeting tonight at the home of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, its spiritual leader, to consider leaving the coalition.
The council is not expected to authorize leaving the coalition at this stage, but the rabbis will likely decide to empower Yosef and Shas chairman Eli Yishai to leave the government when they see fit, without another meeting of the council.

Yishai will brief the rabbis about his meeting with Olmert last week and report what he hears from the Prime Minister's Office following Olmert's meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier Sunday.

"The council meeting is a step on the way to leaving the coalition, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it will happen soon," a Shas official said Saturday night.
I would not be at all surprised to see Shas leave after today's meeting between Olmert and Abu Mazen if anything is said about Jerusalem. If not, then look for them to find an excuse to leave as soon as possible after the Winograd report's publication unless Olmert resigns.

The second place to look for reaction to the report is Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Labor party. Barak - as you may recall - promised he would take Labor out of the coalition if Olmert remained in power. But now Barak has a problem. Most of Labor's current voters want Labor to stay in the coalition whether or not Olmert resigns because Olmert is conducting a 'peace process,' but even Barak has to realize that the rest of the country wants him to leave the coalition and Labor will never return to power with its current total of nineteen MK's. So like a good Israeli politician, Barak is zig-zagging.
Not only will the Labor leader not give an immediate response to the report, he may wait as long as a week before he says anything about it.

Barak is expected to wait to see how the report is interpreted by the press, if any mass waves of protest emerge calling for Olmert's resignation, and the reactions inside Kadima and Labor. Only when Olmert's staying power is clear is Barak expected to issue a statement.

"There is no reason to hurry or to jump," a source close to Barak said. "Who said he has to be the first one to react? He won't react until all the other factors have played out."

Delaying his reaction to the report is part of Barak's strategy to repair his image, Labor sources said. He wants to differentiate himself from Olmert, who was criticized in the interim report in April for acting too impetuously.

But by delaying his response, Barak would break his campaign promise to Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines to remove the party from the government when Winograd was published, regardless of what it said or how people reacted.

"[The Winograd Report] requires personal conclusions," Barak said at the time. "Olmert must seek personal conclusions and resign, as Dan Halutz and Amir Peretz did, each in his own way. If Olmert does not [quit] by the full report's publication, we will have to end our partnership with him and work to establish a new government in the current Knesset, or alternatively, to set a date for elections."

Barak continued to hint over the weekend that he intended to remain in the government despite the report, but Barak's associates asked not to read too much into the statements.

"I remember what I have said," Barak told The Washington Post in an interview published Saturday. "I will read the report and decide what is best for the country. We have to support stability and the continuity of the government."

Barak told The Associated Press in Davos at the World Economic Forum that accountability on his part must be weighed against political stability at a critical time for Israel's security, and for the diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians.

"How exactly to balance between those two elements, that's what I will have to bear in mind when making my decision," he said.

Science and Technology, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle (Labor) came out in favor of his party remaining in the government in an interview on Channel 2's Meet the Press program on Saturday. His party colleague, MK Shelly Yacimovich, called for Labor to leave the coalition.

"Olmert is corrupt, illegitimate, irresponsible and cynical,"

Yacimovich said at a cultural event in Beersheba on Saturday. "Labor should quit the government and should not be afraid of elections."

Labor activists led by Peace Now director-general Yariv Oppenheimer will host a rally at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters Sunday evening calling for the party to remain in the government due to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
Peace Now is to the left of where Labor now sees itself on the political map. Then again, so is Shelly Yacimovich. Meanwhile, Barak is sending Binyamin (Fouad) Ben Eliezer, one of his confidantes, to meet today with the families of the thirty-three soldiers who died in the final ground assault.

And then there's foreign minister Tzipi Feigele Livni, the woman who would be queen. She's meeting today with bereaved families as well, but asked that they not bring along any politicians.

The only thing that bothers me in all this is that if Olmert is forced out, it will be the third straight war whose aftermath includes forcing out the Prime Minister, and that is not a good precedent for the next Prime Minister who faces the decision to go to war. In fact, Olmert's reluctance to send ground troops in may well have been caused in part by his recollection of what happened to Menachem Begin in Lebanon and Golda Meir in the Yom Kippur War. But in this case I believe there is no choice. Olmert's handling of the Second Lebanon War was so obviously incompetent that he must go. And while admittedly I have other motivations for wanting Olmert out, I believe his handling of the war alone is sufficient to bring about his resignation and/or removal.

It's going to be an interesting week here - especially Wednesday night and Thursday. So hang around. We may yet get rid of Olmert soon.


At 4:24 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

The Israeli public is willing to tolerate casualties - even heavy ones - for a well defined war aim as long as that aim is attained and leads to security for Israel. The Israeli public is not going to tolerate casualties if the lives of its sons are just frivolously thrown away to no benefit.

Ehud Olmert's problem was he declared a war aim and then failed to match the means necessary to attain it and then in the closing days of the war, he finally committed the IDF but did not give it the space necessary to win. Ironically, had Olmert acted decisively at the outset and won the war by destroying Hezbollah, Winograd would never have needed to be called.

Where the political winds are blowing today is entirely the result of Olmert's own ineptitude and also due to his subsequent refusal to take personal responsibility for a war he led and mismanaged and if he is forced out of office, the political wounds would be entirely self-inflicted.

Whatever the fallout of Winograd, Olmert has been able to weather the political storm because he has been been able so far to play off his Kadima MKs fear of what is going to happen in a new election. He will be probably be voted off the island at some point because he lacks the two elements necessary to weather major political damage: credibility with the country and a reservoir of public goodwill.

Olmert has neither in stock and he would go not because of a war but because of his less than sterling qualities as an Israeli leader. Israel in a time of looming challenges needs someone at the helm who is decisive enough to address them and Olmert too is not one to lead the country into another war, if it has to fight one in order to survive.

Therefore, Israel needs a change of government not to get rid of Olmert but for the sake of the future of the state.

4:24 PM


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