Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

Olmert slips the noose

Al-Ahram Weekly – 7 February 2008

The families of some of the 119 soldiers killed during Israel’s attack on Lebanon 18 months ago, backed by disgruntled reserve army officers and the Likud Party, stepped up their calls for the head of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week after publication of the much-delayed Winograd Report. But for the moment it looks as though Olmert will cling on to power, if only by the skin of his teeth.

In the 600-page document, the government-appointed Winograd Committee produced a long and scathing list of failings by both the general staff and the government in the handling of the war, a 34- day assault on Lebanon that laid to waste much of the country and killed some 1,000 Lebanese civilians.

But the focus of retired judge Eliyahu Winograd’s enquiry was not the destruction of Lebanon. Nor did he consider whether waging war was justified after Hizbullah attacked a border post, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two more.

Apart from a brief reference to Israel’s indiscriminate firing of millions of cluster bombs over South Lebanon, the committee’s concerns were entirely domestic. Winograd limited his investigation to answering two main questions: why the army was unable to crush Lebanon’s Shia militia, Hizbullah, which fired hundreds of rockets into northern Israel throughout the fighting; and why the government rejected the option of an earlier diplomatic exit from the war.

In particular, the report examined the decision-making behind an Israeli ground invasion in the last days of the fighting, as a United Nations ceasefire was about to come into effect. Some 33 Israeli soldiers died in the attack, a humiliating closing chapter to a war that dented both national pride and the image of invincibility the Israeli army has cultivated as a way to deter regional opponents.

In a series of circumlocutions, the committee found that the ground invasion was “necessary” but also that it had no prospect of success. According to the report, the army had warned that it needed at least four days to achieve its military objectives in an invasion; Olmert approved the operation knowing that there were only 60 hours until the ceasefire began.

Olmert later justified his decision by claiming that although the invasion was doomed to failure it strengthened Israel’s diplomatic hand at the UN while it tried to secure better ceasefire terms. However, evidence presented in the Israeli media, as well as recent revelations by the US ambassador to the UN at the time, John Bolton, suggests that the details of the agreement had been largely set before the invasion began.

Fortunately for Olmert, however, Winograd agreed before publication to pull his punches, refusing to make any recommendations against the individuals involved. Olmert exploited the committee’s vague formulations to claim he had been cleared of any “moral stigma”.

Instead, Winograd lamented the loss of Israeli society’s backbone in the face of Hizbullah’s rocket attacks and its army’s paralysis in the face of casualties on the battlefield. Without greater national resolve, warned the committee, “Israel will not be able to survive in this region and will not be able to exist in peace or even calm.”

In referring to the prime minister’s judgement as “sincere”, even if flawed, the committee toned down a far harsher verdict contained in an interim report published last spring. Following that report, more than 100,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv calling for Olmert to step down.

On this occasion, however, Olmert’s colleagues in the ruling party, Kadima, rallied behind him, including potential challengers for the leadership such as Shaul Mofaz, transport minister and a former chief of staff, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who called for Olmert’s resignation following publication of the interim report. Since the war, Livni’s popularity ratings have far outstripped Olmert’s.

Despite her formal support, Livni embarrassed Olmert, and possibly revealed her longer-term strategy, shortly before the report’s publication by meeting the protest camp amid a glare of publicity.

Olmert’s position in his own party may have been partially secured — at least for the time being — by opinion polls suggesting that Israelis are tired of endless wrangling about the Lebanon war. Although two-thirds of the public want Olmert to resign, a third are happy for him to stay on — well up on a year ago.

The prime minister’s officials have been trying to reinforce that trend by playing up the importance of Olmert remaining at the helm to carry on talks with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah in the hope of a diplomatic breakthrough.

The key to Olmert’s survival, however, probably lies outside both his own party and the opinion polls.

Last week a protest tent set up by the bereaved families and reserve soldiers was not to be found, as should have been expected, outside Olmert’s official residence, or next to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. The families pitched their tent next to the Tel Aviv apartment block of Ehud Barak, Labour Party leader and currently Olmert’s defence minister. Barak, a former chief of staff, took no part in the Lebanon war and has suggested that it would have been handled very differently had he been in government at the time. He assumed the defence post after his inexperienced predecessor, Amir Peretz, was purged in the war’s wake.

The protest movement has been exerting much pressure on Barak because, as leader of the second biggest party in Olmert’s coalition, he is best placed to bring down the government. The protesters are also hoping to embarrass Barak into keeping a promise he made last May, when he threatened on the publication of the Winograd findings either to force Olmert’s resignation or to bring forward elections by pulling out of the coalition.

On Sunday, however, Barak announced that he and his party would not be quitting. His broken promise outraged the protest camp and a few in his party, who fear that Labour’s slumping fortunes in recent elections will only be exacerbated by Barak’s decision to shore up a discredited prime minister.

Labour Secretary-General Eitan Cabel observed: “This was an opportunity for the Labour Party and its leader to rectify the situation in the eyes of the public, which expects leadership, morality and ethics. I fear we may pay a very heavy price for this decision.”

Barak’s about-turn, however, was widely predicted. One commentator noted that Olmert and Barak have become “Siamese twins”, their political fates entwined. Another suggested that an effective merger between Kadima and Labour might yet be on the cards.

That is because the most popular politician in the country is their rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition. According to polls, if elections were held tomorrow, Kadima and Labour would win fewer parliamentary seats together than Likud. In such an event, Netanyahu would have no difficulty forming a rightwing coalition with the backing of Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beitenu Party.

Hoping to accelerate Olmert’s political demise, Netanyahu responded to the Winograd report by stating: “Israel is being led by an unfit and incompetent prime minister.”

Barak acknowledged that the Winograd findings were “harsh” but justified his decision on the grounds that Israel faced severe challenges: “Gaza, Hizbullah, Syria, Iran, and rehabilitating the army.” The implication was that only a former general like himself could be counted on to fix such problems.

In truth, however, Barak needs more time as defence minister to mend his image in the eyes of most Israelis as the taciturn leader who took the country into the failed Camp David negotiations in summer 2000 and triggered the second Intifada of the Palestinians. Israelis also blame Barak for withdrawing the army from South Lebanon in May 2000, a decision that many now believe gave Hizbullah the chance to grow stronger.

Barak is hoping to prove to voters that he, rather than Olmert, is the rightful successor to Ariel Sharon: he has taken credit for choking off fuel, food and medicine to Gaza; for keeping hundreds of roadblocks in place in the West Bank; and for stalling over the dismantling of some 100 fledgling settlements — the so-called “illegal outposts” — that are the first stumbling block to a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Supporters of Barak say he hopes to force elections next spring when his hand is stronger. He would also prefer that until then Olmert remain head of Kadima and the government. It may be easier to attract floating voters away from a Kadima led by Olmert than one headed by Tzipi Livni.

That suits Olmert too. He needs to time to rehabilitate his image. One such opportunity might be a peace deal with the Palestinians, though, given the divisions within the Palestinian leadership, Israeli intransigence and his own weakness, that looks less than probable.

Another tack may be required. One liberal commentator, Zvi Barel of Haaretz, warned this week: “Olmert, as one who was found to be unable to manage one war, may conclude that he should try another, and then another still, until he learns how to do it.”

There is no shortage of such opportunities — in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and, of course, Iran.

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