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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Israel blindsided by the US?

My old yeshiva colleague David Makovsky has read more of the final Winograd Committee report than I have. He has an article on the Washington Institute's web site in which he describes the decision-making process for the final ground assault to reach the Litani River in August 2006 and explains how the decision to proceed with too little time was the result of Israel being 'blind-sided' by the US.
Unlike the first report, the second focused considerably on U.S.-Israeli relations. A close look at the text shows that changing signals from Washington regarding the terms of the ceasefire agreement -- as set forth in UN Security Council Resolution 1701 -- were at the center of Israel's controversial decision to launch a ground assault.

Whether to conduct that assault toward the Litani River, located twelve miles north of the Israeli-Lebanese border, became an issue of internal dispute in the early stages of the conflict. Indeed, the report repeatedly blames the Israeli government for getting stuck in a strategic "muddle." By failing to decide for almost a month whether to launch a quick offensive or a major ground operation, the government and IDF did not effectively integrate Israel's military and political objectives.

Specifically, on August 5, 2006, the cabinet ordered the IDF to come up with a plan for a ground assault amid growing frustration over Hizballah's month-long rocket fire. Although Olmert believed it was possible to reach a ceasefire that would obviate the need for a ground assault, the ceasefire resolution was still being negotiated when a key cabinet meeting was held on August 9. Defense Minister Amir Peretz and IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz pushed for an assault that they claimed would last about a month, while others favored a more limited operation, as proposed by former IDF chief of staff and transportation minister Shaul Mofaz. More cabinet ministers believed his plan was practical in light of the possible ceasefire; it called for the IDF to encircle the Litani in a manner that would avert heavy casualties.

According to the report, Olmert thought that the assault could be averted if a ceasefire were achieved. Therefore, despite his belief that that he must back the current IDF leadership as a matter of principle, the prime minister was initially unyielding in his resistance to Peretz's relentless appeals, repeatedly asking the military if a ground presence would be successful in halting the rocket fire. The report suggests that Olmert, like many of his cabinet ministers, was wary of getting stuck in Lebanon, as happened in the aftermath of the 1982 war. Olmert insisted, however, that the cabinet back the IDF plan but withhold implementation pending ceasefire developments.

In addition to these internal divisions, the report highlights the degree to which the prime minister's office was subsequently blindsided by the draft ceasefire resolution negotiated by the United States and France. The released text provides detailed accounts of shocked Israeli government officials charging that they had no idea the United States would allow carefully negotiated terms to be suddenly reversed. According to the report, this reversal occurred between a draft that Assistant Secretary of State David Welch shared with Israelis on August 10 and a fax of the new draft from Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns late that same night. The Burns draft reportedly included no enforcement for a weapons embargo on Hizballah and no mention that embargo violations would be sanctioned by chapter seven of the UN Charter (which authorizes the use of force).

The report concludes that when the altered ceasefire terms proved highly disappointing to Israel, Olmert yielded. In his own testimony before the Winograd Committee, he decided to go to war because he believed there would be a vacuum between the ceasefire declaration and the actual bolstering of UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeepers, and therefore that Israeli positions would be taken by Hizballah militia members. As such, Olmert believed he had no other choice but to approve the ground assault, partly in order to improve the ceasefire terms. Indeed, in the final ceasefire draft, the vacuum issue was resolved.
Makovsky goes on to argue that the US and Israel need to examine why their close coordination collapsed at this critical moment.

But Israel has never totally depended on an ally - not even on the United States - to look out for its interests. There is another issue - an internal Israeli issue - that needs to be examined. The issue is the manner in which the Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers work together.

As I have described before, Israeli cabinet ministries are political appointments handed out to senior coalition members. It is often the case that a minister has little or no experience in the specific policy area that his or her ministry handles. Such was the case, for example, with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (pictured, top left) in 2006.

While I don't absolve her from blame for the manner in which I believe she handled Resolution 1701 (and you all know I am no fan of hers), it is possible that had Livni been present in New York while 1701 was being negotiated, Israel would not have been 'blindsided' by what went on at the UN. And in fact, Livni did want to be in New York. But Prime Minister Ehud K. Olmert prevented her from going there until August 16, 2006 - after 1701 had been signed and adopted. The quote below is from the second-to-last story linked above.
And here's another little tidbit that may come as a surprise to some of you:
Olmert also encountered problems inside his own party over the weekend when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni expressed disappointment with his decision to prevent her from attending the Security Council deliberations on the cease-fire resolution in New York.

The move was seen as revenge against Livni for opposing military operations and for voting against a decision to bomb Hizbullah's headquarters in Beirut at the start of the war. [I never knew she voted against it, and why is Olmert taking 'revenge' when it was clear all along that he himself opposed it? CiJ]

In an unflattering profile in the weekend magazine of Yediot Aharonot, Foreign Ministry staffers criticized Livni for taking a backseat role during the war and refusing to give interviews to the foreign press.

"My relationship with the prime minister is correct," Livni told Channel 1 on Saturday night. "I think I should have gone to New York but the prime minister thought differently, so I did my work from here." [Someone find the lady some frequent flier miles. CiJ]
What we know now but only had a hint of then was that this was just part of an ugly relationship between Olmert and Livni. This post is from October 2007:
Back when the Winograd Commission's preliminary report came out in April, Foreign Minister Tzipi Feigele Livni was quick to call on Prime Minister Ehud K. Olmert to resign. So quick that she didn't even wait for the report to come out. Olmert managed to dodge that bullet, and has remained in power, and Livni seemingly went back to the foreign ministry to lick her wounds and regroup. She's been relatively quiet since then. What tomorrow's article shows is that she never went back to regroup and that she's been rebelling against Olmert the entire time. With tomorrow's article, that rebellion comes out into the open.
The article also reveals for the first time a document Livni prepared and sent to Olmert a few months after the Second Lebanon War proposing a new division of labor between the two. "Enclosed is a proposal for work procedures between us, with the aim of providing an answer to Israel's strategic needs and facilitating early planning and the formulation of coordinated Israeli positions ... within the framework of cooperative relations, full transparency and continuous mutual updates," wrote Livni.

She described in the document a number of required arrangements: "The prime minister and the foreign minister will hold regular work meetings at least once a week." In an allusion to her absence form critical discussions during the war in Lebanon, she wrote: "The foreign minister will be invited to meetings with the prime minister on security matters and other meetings with serious implications."
As I re-read those two paragraphs, I am reminded of the part of The King and I, where Deborah Kerr, playing the children's nanny, attempts to impose order on the life of Yul Brynner playing the King. The difference of course was that Kerr recognized she can never win. Livni still thinks she can win.

What's described by Haaretz fits right in with Livni's attempt to absolve herself of blame for last summer's war in her testimony before the Winograd Commission.
The foreign minister also described the escalating tensions between her and the prime minister. She recalled how Olmert, during a security cabinet meeting centered around discussing the widening military operation, ignored her suggestions, and how her relationship with the prime minister suffered as a result.

"During the meeting, I was at a point where I felt I was barely being heard," Livni said. "When I began to speak, the prime minister would suddenly start speaking to the chief of general staff or somebody, and I stopped what I was saying."

The prime minister, Livni said, told her to continue. When she asked Olmert to listen to what she was saying, the prime minister responded by saying he was listening "to every word, and even to every vibration."

Livni pointed out several times throughout her testimony how she tried to push for acceptance of her policy, and described how it was ignored. "The military operation cannot return the soldiers. It can pulverize Hizbullah, but at a certain point there won't be high-quality targets and there will be no hope for the operation," the foreign minister told the committee.

"Therefore the timing is crucial, right now the operation is a military one, but its end will be a diplomatic one."
In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The fact that Livni gave an interview that resulted in this article shows that she's still rebelling - and has been all along.
Since the Winograd Committee report came out, Livni has remained silent, probably because she realizes that most of the country wants new elections and not just for her to replace Olmert. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder whether Israel would have been 'blindsided' by the US had Livni been in New York for a few more days in August.

The lesson in all this goes far beyond the mandate of the Winograd Committee. The problem this illustrates is a structural problem within the Israeli government (and it could happen in any Israeli government and not just in Olmert's) in which ministries are handed out as political plums to coalition MK's instead of being handled by professionals. Livni's political aspirations to replace Olmert engendered so much fear in him that he refused to properly utilize whatever skills she has as foreign minister. Having a lawyer with a direct line to the Israeli government present in New York when 1701 was being negotiated could have avoided the surprise that hit Israel on August 11, 2006. But because of the personal animosity between Olmert and Livni - some might argue out arising out of Olmert's fears that Livni wants to replace him - that lawyer "did her work from Israel" and wasn't able to listen in to the conversations and read the facial expressions of David Welch, Nicholas Burns and John Bolton. As a result, Israel may have lost out.

Unfortunately, don't look for reform of Israel's government system - and the replacement of political hacks with professional ministers - to happen anytime soon. Too many people have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.


At 4:23 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Much of the structural problems result from Israel having an electoral system that prevents one party from gaining a majority to pursue and implement coherent policies and do long term planning. It also prevents voters from knowing who to hold accountable for political and policy failures.

A switch to a single constituency first past the post electoral system would give every Israeli both a local representative and give Israel stable majority governments. The life of an Israeli government on average has been 2 and a half years in the past decade. And prime ministers come and go. Thus, there's no stability, no competence, no coherent policies and no accountability.

Too many people like keeping things as they are for their own selfish reasons so Israel is just going keep to drifting along from crisis to crisis even though there's a widespread sense things are badly broken in the country.

All of which cry out for reform.


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