Will the Buck of the Lebanon War Stop in Time for the Next Round?

Monday, Nov. 13, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, fresh from a 45-minute encounter with President George W. Bush in the White House, refused to tell reporters loud and clear that he backs his beleaguered chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz.

Halutz was understandably skeptical when the next day, the prime minister was on the phone in a tardy effort to correct the lapse and offer his full support.

The general is canny enough to understand that his head is on the block for everything that went wrong in the July-August, 2006 Lebanon War.

The sense that he is next in line was brought home again Wednesday, Nov. 15, when a mass-circulation Israeli daily reported that 71% of Israelis canvassed in a new poll thought the chief of staff should step down. In slightly hotter water according to the same poll is the defense minister, the Labor leader Amir Peretz, whom 72% would like to see ousted for his performance in the war.

In other words, most Israelis will not be satisfied with the buck for the mismanaged 33-day Lebanon War stopping with the military. A majority holds the heads of government at least, if not more, accountable.

If those two skittles fall, the next target of popular ire for his unsatisfactory war performance will be the prime minister himself. His popular approval rating stays at a low 20%.

In the three months since the Aug 13 ceasefire halted the Lebanon war, military and political observers in Jerusalem are increasingly perplexed by Olmert’s reactions. For the most part, national and military leaders had been propping each other up against the widespread clamor for an accounting, on the assumption that if one of them falls, the others will be dragged down with him.

But this mutual support system began crumbling on Sept 13 with the resignation of Maj.Gen Udi Adam, who was smarting from the humiliation of having Dep. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky placed over his head in the middle of the War as commander of the northern front.


Defects through the entire chain of command


The next knock to the system was inflicted by (Res.) Maj-Gen Doron Almog, former OC Southern Command, who led a panel probing the circumstances of the Hizballah incursion which triggered the Lebanon war by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing eight.

Doron’s findings were devastating.

He uncovered a chain of defective actions at every level, from the company of the abducted men up to Division 91 and its commander, who was responsible for the Israel-Lebanese border sector, and all the way to the General Staff in Tel Aviv.

Brig.-Gen Gal Hirsch, the division commander who led nine full battle brigades at the high point of the war, resigned. In his letter of resignation, he passed the blame to his superiors and demanded that they follow his lead.

This opened up a floodgate of recriminations. The rancor has since welled up and thrown Israel’s high command into crisis.

Most of the generals – present and past – including former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak and generals covered in honor for their contributions to Israel’s long run of brilliant victories, came out in the open and urged Gen. Halutz to quit.

The old-timers denounced the behavior of the reigning generals as an aberration in terms of the General Staff’s established norms. They are indignant at the new generation’s standards of conducting war.

At the same time, a large group of reservists, officers and men, who fought in the Lebanon war, are casting stones at the prime minister and defense minister. Supported by angry civilians and bereaved parents, they want both to own up to their faults and step down.

Israel’s national and military leaders are therefore being tossed about on a stormy sea. No one knows how long it will last and who the survivors will be.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political analysts predict a rocky 2007 – or for as long as the storm is corked tight by Ehud Olmert’s steady refusal to bow to public demands either to remove himself or let an independent state commission with judicial powers finger the parties responsible for the misconduct of the Lebanon War. Such a panel would have served to clear the air, restored credibility to the body politic and revived the total trust the military traditionally enjoys in a war-battered country. But by now it may be too late.

The bone Olmert threw to the wolves baying at his door only made the volatility worse. He personally appointed an inquiry commission headed by a judge with a limited remit. This step released a cascade of probes.


A plethora of probes but no credibility


The chief of staff set up eight separate inquiry bodies, chaired by reserve major generals and manned by high-ranking former officers. Doron Almog headed one such team; another, led by another former chief of staff Dan Shomron, will examine Dan Halutz’s own performance.

The State Comptroller, former supreme court judge Moshe Lindenstrauss, has pitched in with a string of teams to investigate how the different branches off government and army performed in the Lebanon War. The state controller submits his reports to the Knesset, but may forward evidence of wrongdoing to the state prosecutor.

Finally the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee and its sub-committees on intelligence and other military branches are taking testimony in closed hearings from reserve officers and men who took part in the war.

The various inquiry teams are already stepping on each other toes. They are due to produce their findings and recommendations next year. It does not take a political genius to anticipate the destructive effect this hail of bitter news will have on the political system and all parts of the armed forces. They are already braced to absorb the shocks, incapable of normal functioning under this ominous cloud, least of all repairing the flaws the war uncovered in their performance, or pull themselves together to grapple with the hostilities to come.

Olmert would have had a chance of taming public animosity and restoring the country to a semblance of normality had he sipped the poison chalice of an independent inquiry commission, or even wielded an axe as high up as the chief of staff or the defense minister. He might then have brought into perspective the shock and disillusion experienced by the entire country at the failure of its army to beat an Arab army for the first time in 58 year. Israelis, who hold their armed forces on a pedestal, still cannot come to terms with their failure to stop the Hizballah rocket offensive, which incarcerated more than a million Israelis underground for more than a month.

Looking ahead, many are deeply disturbed by the IDF’s failure to bend the Lebanese Hizballah in its first indirect brush with Iran. Anticipating further violent contests with the Islamic Republic in the year to come, Israel needs a cure for disenchantment with its government and military leaders and the traumas of war. However, matters will most likely get worse before a measure of equilibrium is restored.

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