First a confession, I have not yet read all 629 pages of the final Winograd Committee Report that looks at the summer 2006 Lebanon War – I have read the summary, the commentary and watched the news conference. Based on that, five initial comments:
1) Rumors of Ehud Olmert’s political demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Report was nowhere near as politically devastating as had been anticipated. The PM is breathing a sigh of relief, and the wind has gone out of the sails of the protest campaign of his political opponents. Haaretz’s lead political analyst, Yossi Verter, today confidently asserts that Olmert “has survived.” There is actually less direct criticism of Olmert in the Final Report than in the Interim Report.
Sure, the opposition will scour the 629 pages and find plenty to feed the anti-Olmert campaign – but that campaign was always primarily politically driven, not popular, and that sense of public outcry will now be very difficult to portray in the media. Olmert’s people are even gaining some traction with their call for Netanyahu and others to apologize for the character assassination that has been waged against the PM (this is based on accusations that Olmert conducted the ground campaign in the last weekend of the war for purely political, personal, and spin reasons – that idea was rejected by the Committee).
The Report has increased Ehud Barak’s wiggle room in slithering out of his pre-Labor primaries commitment to quit the Government or force elections once the Report was published. (A poll on Ch 2 last night had the public split 45-41 on whether Barak should quit the Government, not bad by recent standards.)
2) The IDF takes the brunt of criticism in the Final Report, especially in relation to the final 60 hours of the war – the ground invasion. The IDF, and notably the ground forces, were not prepared, not trained, not up to the task – and their commanders were at fault for suggesting otherwise to the political leadership.
OK, that is not nice for Israeli’s to hear – but what was happening here was that Israel’s worst kept secret just had a few more flashing lights and bells attached to it. Namely, IDF ground forces, the reserve divisions, have not been training for major combat missions for several years, or for complicated operations that require sophisticated coordination between the land, sea, and air front. Why you ask. Aha, well that’s simple – been a little bit busy I’m afraid, would love to have trained, really, but sorry – had these policing duties to carry out in the occupied territories, so many illegal outposts to protect, “training – shmaining.” How many more examples do we need of the debilitating effect of the occupation on the occupier?
Ariel Sharon was PM for almost 5 years, the IDF was never sent on a complicated extensive mission combining all three of its elements during those 5 years – and not because Arik wasn’t tempted or didn’t feel provoked. No, Arik simply knew the army he had, what it was spending its time doing, the kind of tests that it was smart to avoid, and to not expose to the region and the world.
As Tom Segev asks in an excellent piece in today’s Haaretz, “To what extent have 40 years of occupation affected the ability of the Israel Defense Forces to protect the country? Or, in other words, does the IDF train its soldiers to fight - or does it mainly teach them to oppress the Palestinian population?”
3) A boost to the Annapolis process, especially if the lessons are learned:
OK, so the Annapolis skepticism is still very much in place, especially after the less-than-stunning progress made in the two months since the Maryland moment and after the Gazan escalation. But on the assumption that it can still be salvaged – and that’s both possible and worthwhile, then Olmert is less wounded than anticipated, and that is a good thing. My colleague, Steve Clemons, mentions this at his "The Washington Note" blog. There is likely to be a post-Winograd Olmert Government, and that Government could pursue the Annapolis process. For some time now everything has been on stand-by, waiting for Grado. Well, now it’s time to move on, and judging by the initial reactions, the post-Report political storm is likely to end sooner rather than later.
Olmert can now take that one meaningful shot at rehabilitating his premiership – a bold diplomatic process. This requires that a lesson or two be learned from Lebanon. Key in this context would be the following: that the limits of military power, especially in asymmetrical warfare, are understood and that a ceasefire and diplomatic solution are pursued not after all else has failed and left a huge mess, but ASAP. OK, so it’s too late for that in Gaza, but it’s not too late to at least avoid a further deterioration. Read this piece for more on Gaza.
4) People in Glass Think-Tanks…
One of Ehud Olmert’s harshest critics and a leading voice in the calls for his resignation has been former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe ‘Boogy’ Ya’alon. How inconvenient then that the Report points a very accusing finger at Ya’alon as having been the Chief of Staff from whom Halutz (who filled that role during the war and has since resigned) inherited an army that was so poorly trained, badly equipped, logistically incompetent and all-in-all unfit for battle. Ya’alon was Chief of Staff from 2002-05. Hmm, guess the state of the army in 2006 has nothing to do with him…
Since leaving the army Ya’alon has become quite the intellectual. First he spent time as a Military Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and now he is firmly ensconced as a Fellow at Sheldon Adelson’s “Shalem Center” in Jerusalem – the Israeli version of the AEI.
How surprising then that Ya’alon should be the great new military hope of Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party – he has joined the Party, plans to run for the Knesset, and is Bibi’s right-hand man and attack-dog on all public campaigns of a military nature. And how sad that following the Report’s findings and criticism of his period as IDF Chief, Ya’alon will, one assumes, practice what he preaches, do the decent thing, and remove himself from consideration for being the future Defense Minister. No chance. The prospect of Ya’alon being Defense Minister some day is a real one, in that respect a least Israel would seem to be pursuing green policies – we recycle failed leaders. Be worried, very worried.
5) The missing Chapter – America’s absent diplomacy:
By definition the Israeli committee of investigation did not focus on the American role and decision-making process during the war. It is a critical missing ingredient. I have discussed Chapter 10 of Glenn Kessler’s excellent book on Condoleezza Rice, “The Confidante,” about the Lebanon War, before in this piece. This Chapter can be read as almost an appendix to what was published in Jerusalem yesterday.
The American mismanagement of the international diplomatic component of ending the war is all there. Kessler describes Rice’s Lebanon involvement prior to that summer, despite the dramatic events taking place there, as “drive-by diplomacy”. Once hostilities started, Rice insisted on opposing an early ceasefire in favor of a radical re-alignment of the Lebanese reality – this has happened, just not in the way she had in mind. The US failed to use the G8 gathering that was held just days into the conflict to advance a de-escalation and refused to engage with Damascus. Rice waited a week before traveling to the region and then delayed action towards a ceasefire in the UN. Reading the so-far published Reports of the testimony to the Winograd Committee, it is clear that many senior Israeli Ministers had assumed that the Israeli response to the Hezbollah raid would not become a full-blown war, as diplomacy would quickly intervene.
But American diplomacy was absent, something that then UN Ambassador John Bolton seems rather proud of. Rice describes the Lebanon war episode in Elizabeth Bumiller’s book, “Condoleezza Rice – An American Life”, as “my most frustrating time.” American mismanagement helped make Israel a prisoner to accomplishing a mission that wasn't realistic. As my friend Tony Karon points out in this post on his Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, “the Bush Administration’s own decisions had a decisive impact on how Israel waged its campaign.”
There are lessons to be learned from that “frustrating time,” and I pointed out three recently in this IHT op-ed.
(1) That fragile Arab polities are best stabilized by reconciliation, not confrontation.
(2) That US diplomatic leadership should be timely and persistent, not sluggish and sporadic.
(3) That the special relationship between Jerusalem and Washington should be used to help Israel climb down from precarious ladders, not scramble further up them.