An Israeli state inquiry into the conduct of the Lebanon war exonerated Ehud Olmert from charges that he ordered an 11th-hour ground offensive against Hezbollah for political purposes.
The report, issued Wednesday, improved the prime minister’s prospects of weathering the storm of an otherwise blistering assessment of the government’s performance during the inconclusive war.
The 60-hour ground operation to wipe out Katyusha rocket fire in southern Lebanon – a push that cost Israel the lives of 33 soldiers – was "essential," according to the commission headed by retired justice Eliayhu Winograd.
Reading a summary of the panel’s final report on the war on Israeli television with a monotone voice, the justice said the offensive was backed by Israeli military experts even though it proved to be a failure.
Although the report is littered with criticism of decision-making and preparation by the prime minister and the military, the assessment on the ground war could save Olmert from an avalanche of calls for his immediate resignation; his fate now likely hinges on how intense the fallout is in the Knesset.
Critics have said that the final operation was given a green light – despite the fact that diplomats were close to a UN Security Council Resolution on a cease-fire – in order to end the war on a winning note, thus improving Olmert’s political standing.
"It didn’t exonerate him exactly, but it wasn’t that bad," Shlomo Aronson, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, said of the Winograd Commission report. "The commission left it to the public."
The commission was appointed by Olmert in the weeks after the war in response to public anger over the gap between the prime minister’s initial promise to expel Hezbollah from southern Lebanon and the inconclusive results of the fighting.
The final Winograd report revisited the conclusion of its interim findings in April 2007. Those pointed to "serious failures" of judgment by Olmert, former Defense Minister Amir Peretz and military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. In addition to Israel’s political leaders, much of Winograd’s criticism was directed at the army.
The final report said that the army failed to end the war with any military achievements to bolster Israel’s position in the cease-fire compromise. The Israel army failed to formulate a response to the Katyusha fire, the report said.
Moreover, Israel failed to make effective and intelligent use of its military advantage over Hezbollah, despite controlling Lebanese airspace and fighting a limited war close to its borders.
The Winograd report called UN Security Council 1701 – which required Hezbollah to withdraw from southern Lebanon and banned its covert arms smuggling – a diplomatic victory for Israel, even if the cease-fire hasn’t been honored.
All eyes will now be on Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, who has to decide whether he will act on his declaration after the interim report that the prime minister should step down after the final report. Barak has said he’ll wait to make a final statement, but parliament members from his party were already calling for Olmert’s resignation.
"Read the report beyond the last 60 hours … the things said in the report about the political echelon are of the utmost severity," said lawmaker Eitan Cabel. "I don’t ever remember statements so harsh against the political echelon."