Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Israel's Government in Thrall to Over-Mighty Military

May 1, 2007

Shame of a Government in thrall to over-mighty military

The Winograd report into Israel’s military action in Lebanon last summer had caused immense agitation even before its publication yesterday. Its conclusions have been anticipated for months.

But that does not make its publication an anticlimax. The five-member committee, appointed by the Israeli Government, has no power to force the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, or anyone else to resign. But it delivered, in much tougher language than expected, a condemnation of their decision to lead Israel hastily into a conflict without appreciation of the risks or a plan for its prosecution.

Its verdict puts an end forever to Olmert’s tortuous efforts to portray the conflict as a success by supposedly crippling Hezbollah’s strength. In 34 days of strikes, Israel failed to force the return of the two captured Israeli soldiers or to crush Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, the two goals of its action. That is a failure in anyone’s books.

Who is to blame? As it happens, the highest casualty is not even in the report: Tony Blair, in essence, lost his job over Israel’s military action. His refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire provoked disagreement with parts of the Foreign Office, and then uproar from the Labour party, forcing his concession that he would step down within a year.

The most acid criticism in the Winograd report is directed at Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, the military commander, but that is blunted as he has already quit. It says Halutz acted impulsively, misrepresented the army’s readiness and suppressed dissenting opinion. A former air force chief, he ordered massive air strikes on southern Lebanon and southern Beirut which failed to stop Hezbollah pounding northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets, and caused the civilian casualties which brought international condemnation. In the conflict, 158 Israelis died, including 117 soldiers and 41 civilians. About 1,200 people are estimated to have died in Lebanon, including about 270 Hezbollah fighters. The outcome was another lesson in the limitations of air power as well as a humiliation for the most powerful military in the Middle East.

The most damaging charges of the Winograd committee then fall on the politicians whom, it says, were blindly led by the military. It has pummelled Amir Peretz, Defence Minister, and Olmert, although it has stopped just short of calling for their resignation. Peretz, whom the committee hammers for inexperience and failure to challenge military plans, is in any case leaving the Defence Ministry in a month or two. But the effect on Olmert will be even more damaging than recent speculation has suggested. It accuses him of acting hastily, without a detailed military plan, and without studying options.

He may survive, for a while; although the conflict took his unpopularity to new levels, he heads a stable coalition. But his weakness will do nothing to bring life to the flickers of talks with Palestinian and Arab leaders, as they pointed out yesterday.

The committee describes a government willing — almost eager — to be led by its revered military without asking the most obvious questions. In a separate coda, the military influence is also visible in the vindictive pursuit of Mordechai Vanunu, who served 18 years in jail for telling the world what it knew — that Israel had nuclear weapons. A court yesterday convicted him of violating a bar on talking to foreigners, which may lead to a further jail sentence.

Winograd blames Halutz, Peretz and Olmert, but the disposition it identifies will not vanish with their exit.

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