Reading the Winograd Report: Ehud Olmert’s Strategy for Political Survival

It is not often that the weather around us comports well with the thrust of political events: Terrible disasters have struck out of clear blue skies, and good news has come our way on dark days. But these last few days provided a powerful fit between the physical climate—finally, after a long draught, a real storm broke over our heads, bringing rain to much of the country and a beautiful coat of snow to Jerusalem—and the intense swirl of expectations, fears, speculations, and manipulations that have come to surround the final report prepared by the Winograd Commission on the conduct of the Second Lebanon War.

There is no longer any question that this war was, in terms of its ultimate outcome, a far cry from the victory promised by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz, in their ambitious “Churchillian” speeches during the early stages of the five-week period of fighting. True, the balance in Lebanon itself is still indeterminate, and Hezbollah did sustain serious losses. Their hold on South Lebanon was reduced, and elements of the relevant UN resolutions have been implemented. But this organization, which serves as Iran’s long and deadly arm on Israel’s border, is still there, well-armed and dangerous. The abducted soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, are still in their hands. The IDF, tragically, failed to put an end, until the very last moment, to the murderous barrage of rockets that disrupted the lives of millions in the Galilee and Haifa. Israel’s reputation as a capable military power, vital for our survival in our problematic environment, was badly tarnished.

The Winograd Commission concurred with the basic finding that Israel—political leaders and soldiers alike—sustained this suboptimal outcome largely because of a fatal indecision about the nature of the war: The political level failed to make up its mind; the supreme military command pursued the wrong strategy (based on the strongly held  belief of the chief of staff at the time, Lt.-General Danny Halutz, that air power could prevail) until it was too late; and the IDF as a whole suffered the consequences of prolonged neglect—which predates both Olmert and Peretz—in training and preparedness. Moreover, the management of government policies toward the stricken civilian population was bitterly and obviously deficient.

All of this requires a profound overhaul of the way decisions are made at the highest levels in Israel. Crucial decisions were taken without proper consideration of their consequences. The various departments of government were not well coordinated. There were painful disconnects between the prime minister and the ministry of defense; between the political level and the soldiers; and within the IDF itself. The main lesson—Judge Eliyahu Winograd intoned carefully, as he read the main findings in a message to the Israeli public—is not the rush to judgment but the commitment to real and deep change; and one sometimes precludes the other: A fear of being judged personally can disrupt the prospect of honest engagement by existing decision-makers in implementing reforms. Israel, he said, must pursue peace and compromise—but to survive in a hostile area, it is also necessary for Israel’s leaders to convey, to friend and foe alike, a robust capacity to take successful military action when needed. Limited reforms and specific achievements (a subtle hint, possibly aimed at deflating Olmert’s attempt to take pride in the “Syrian event” of September 2007) are not enough. An extensive effort to change the way Israel operates in all matters related to national security cannot be delayed.

Politically, however, what many in Israel and beyond her borders expected from the commission was a personal verdict: perhaps an indictment of Prime Minister Olmert’s conduct, and in particular—against the background of heartrending protests by some of the bereaved families—of his decision to authorize the half-hearted and belated ground operation in the last sixty hours before the cease-fire took hold. Some thirty soldiers died in the ground battle, which in some places was badly managed (although it was heroically pursued, and ultimately did prove that the IDF ground forces are as determined, and can be as effective at close range, as Hezbollah’s fighters.) There is no question that the Winograd Commission found fault with the military and political outcome of this battle, and criticized the lack of coordination between the political and military dimensions of the decisions taken at this dramatic and tragic stage. But it did not—and here the language Judge Winograd chose was quite clear—judge Olmert’s decision, undertaken within the scope of his professional discretion, to have been unreasonable or driven by unseemly considerations.

Thus, while the war as whole was under scrutiny, the focal point for public opinion (perhaps through natural dynamics, perhaps as a result of sophisticated “spins”) came to be the ground operation—and on this one point, Olmert was not singled out for rebuke. This was picked up almost immediately by Olmert’s entourage as proof that the commission did not provide a reason for him to step down or even to apologize for his actions at that stage. Much of the broader criticism aimed at the conduct of the war—above all, the decision to go to war without a proper assessment of its purposes and possible results—was already contained in the interim report nine months ago, which Olmert did survive (politically speaking); and thus the expectation that the final report would generate an unstoppable momentum toward Olmert’s removal from office began to dissipate.

At the end of the day, however—and the day is not over yet—it will not be the general public, nor the protest movements, nor even the abrasive Israeli media, who will determine the political meaning of the full report (which includes secret sections, due to the need to protect intelligence sources and international relations—including sensitive information about the moral support Israel received from some of our Arab neighbors who wanted to see Hezbollah cut down to size). This decisive role fell on the shoulders of Defense Minister Ehud Barak—as leader of the Labor Party, a former prime minister, a former chief of staff, and an experienced analyst and practitioner—whose reading of the report will determine whether Olmert’s coaltion will survive. Barak’s position was made more difficult by the promise he gave last year, when he campaigned for the party leadership, that he would take Labor out of the coalition once the final Winograd Report came to light.  By now, however, Barak and some of the other Labor ministers—Binyamin “Fuad” Ben Eliezer, Yitzhak “Bouji” Herzog, and others—feel strongly that they can do more for the country as members of the Cabinet (and Barak can point to a great effort, over which he presided, to improve IDF performance). Given the restrained language chosen by the commission, it would not be difficult for the Labor Party, despite the aggressive protest campaigns that may well be expected, to justify a decision to stay on. With Iran looming large on our horizon, particularly after the American NIE debacle, and the crisis in Gaza unresolved, but perhaps evolving in interesting directions, this is not the time for early elections or for a man of Barak’s abilities to walk out.

And yet this government may not reach its full term. While Olmert may have been determined to avoid being forced to step down or to contest an election, against the background of the Winograd findings, he may find himself obliged to do so—and perhaps even tempted to turn this necessity into a political virtue—over the emerging negotiations with the Palestinians. It is not for long that the question of Jerusalem can be kept off the table without alienating the Palestinian leadership (although President George W. Bush apparently reached the conclusion, during his visit, that a push toward an early decision on the future of Jerusalem would be futile). On the other hand, one right-wing party, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, has already left the coalition over the peace process—a development that apparently helped Olmert consolidate support, on the left and in the media, on the eve of the report. Another, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, threatens to do so the moment Jerusalem is discussed. Sooner or later, this internal tension and the political balance in the Knesset (without the right wing, the core of the coalition—Kadima, Labor, the Pensioners’ Party—has only fifty-five seats; even if Meretz joins, only sixty; and any attempt to rely on the radical Arab parties would have disastrous political and public consequences) will require a popular vote, given how much things have changed since March 2006. If the shadow of Winograd, and the war, recedes, Olmert might even find it conducive to his long-term purposes.

Copyright 2013/2014 AJC