Commentary Magazine


Topic: Winograd Commission

Israel to Elections?

So, against my predictions, the Winograd Commission report came and went, and Ehud Olmert’s government weathered the storm, right? Not so fast. It is true that, to everyone’s astonishment, the report essentially gave Olmert a much-needed bye, and his biggest coalition partner, Ehud Barak of the Labor party, announced he is not resigning for now. But last week Israel was awash in scandal, when a member of the esteemed commission, Yehezkel Dror, implied in an interview that the commission’s findings were skewed towards protecting Olmert’s government for political reasons. As he put it, “If we believe that the prime minister could promote the peace process, this is quite a lofty consideration. If the peace process succeeds, this could save so many lives, and therefore this is a substantial consideration.” If the message were not clear enough, Dror added the following: “What would you prefer? A government under Olmert and Barak, or new elections that would see Bibi [Netanyahu] rise to power?” Subtle.

But the most important news comes from a third party in the coalition, Shas, which holds twelve seats and can bring down the government on its own. Thursday, the head of the party, Eli Yishai, told his supporters that “I don’t know how long this government will last. I estimate that soon we will have elections.” According to radio reports, Yishai also instructed his party’s local branches to begin preparations for elections this coming November — a year and a half earlier than scheduled. Ehud Barak has also hinted that he is leaning towards early elections.

There are good reasons to think that this is not just posturing. True, historically speaking Shas is one of the least likely parties to bring down a government — its main goal in life is to secure maximum government funding for its religious schools, and being in opposition is not very good for that. But today Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular, reeking of both corruption and incompetence. In such a case, parties that cling to the government do so at their peril: As soon as one party seriously considers bolting under popular pressure, the other stands to be left clinging to a sinking ship — and voters will punish those who didn’t leave when they had the chance. The result is that contrary to ordinary politics, where parties hold on to power as long as they can, prophecies of a falling government are often self-fulfilling, as each party jockeys for the best advantage in the next election. Stay tuned.

So, against my predictions, the Winograd Commission report came and went, and Ehud Olmert’s government weathered the storm, right? Not so fast. It is true that, to everyone’s astonishment, the report essentially gave Olmert a much-needed bye, and his biggest coalition partner, Ehud Barak of the Labor party, announced he is not resigning for now. But last week Israel was awash in scandal, when a member of the esteemed commission, Yehezkel Dror, implied in an interview that the commission’s findings were skewed towards protecting Olmert’s government for political reasons. As he put it, “If we believe that the prime minister could promote the peace process, this is quite a lofty consideration. If the peace process succeeds, this could save so many lives, and therefore this is a substantial consideration.” If the message were not clear enough, Dror added the following: “What would you prefer? A government under Olmert and Barak, or new elections that would see Bibi [Netanyahu] rise to power?” Subtle.

But the most important news comes from a third party in the coalition, Shas, which holds twelve seats and can bring down the government on its own. Thursday, the head of the party, Eli Yishai, told his supporters that “I don’t know how long this government will last. I estimate that soon we will have elections.” According to radio reports, Yishai also instructed his party’s local branches to begin preparations for elections this coming November — a year and a half earlier than scheduled. Ehud Barak has also hinted that he is leaning towards early elections.

There are good reasons to think that this is not just posturing. True, historically speaking Shas is one of the least likely parties to bring down a government — its main goal in life is to secure maximum government funding for its religious schools, and being in opposition is not very good for that. But today Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular, reeking of both corruption and incompetence. In such a case, parties that cling to the government do so at their peril: As soon as one party seriously considers bolting under popular pressure, the other stands to be left clinging to a sinking ship — and voters will punish those who didn’t leave when they had the chance. The result is that contrary to ordinary politics, where parties hold on to power as long as they can, prophecies of a falling government are often self-fulfilling, as each party jockeys for the best advantage in the next election. Stay tuned.

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Let It Snow

Suddenly Jerusalem has forgotten the Winograd commission. The Gaza crisis is a vague memory. Florida? Heard of it. The only thing people care about in Jerusalem this morning is snow. The  city is a big ball of slush, which may soon turn into a thick blanket. Later they may get out the salt spreaders and plows. But for now, everyone’s sleeping in, or watching the Wailing Wall of White fall outside our windows.

Suddenly Jerusalem has forgotten the Winograd commission. The Gaza crisis is a vague memory. Florida? Heard of it. The only thing people care about in Jerusalem this morning is snow. The  city is a big ball of slush, which may soon turn into a thick blanket. Later they may get out the salt spreaders and plows. But for now, everyone’s sleeping in, or watching the Wailing Wall of White fall outside our windows.

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Olmert on the Edge

While America’s attention is on the primaries, Israelis appear to be on the edge of their next political abyss. Two days from now, the much-feared Winograd Commission will be unleashing its final report on the 2006 Lebanon war, and no one is looking more uncomfortable than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Over the last few weeks there has been a great deal of speculation as to both the contents of the report and its political ramifications, and Olmert has been deep in spin-control. On last Monday night, he announced that he would not step down regardless of the report’s findings — a pretty scary statement, considering that the report could tar him for deep ineptitude. Today he sweatingly announced that his government has “many more years to govern.”

The more Olmert talks, the more his face is obscured by the shadows of vultures circling over his head. For months, about a dozen members of his ruling Kadima party have threatened to bolt if the report turns out bad and Olmert does not resign. Last week, Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu faction pulled out of the coalition, leaving the government with just 67 seats (they need 61 to govern). Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who eagerly seeks Olmert’s post, has been undermining Olmert ever since the war. The Shas party is thinking about pulling its 12 seats out of the coalition over negotiations with the Palestinians. Olmert ‘s popularity has bottomed out, with his party getting only 10 seats in a recent poll (as compared to their current 29). Oh, and let’s not forget that Olmert is currently under multiple criminal investigations. But the biggest vulture of them all is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor party holds 19 seats in the coalition, and who may lose a great deal of public support if he cannot take a principled stand against Olmert.

The Winograd report has the potential to tip any of these over the edge. The report will probably lay heavy blame on then-IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who failed to prepare the military for war and failed to run the war while it was happening; and on the mustachioed then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose breathtaking ignorance of military affairs raises serious questions about the merits of parliamentary democracy. But the real questions will rise about Olmert, who laid out major objectives for the war, none of which were achieved; and who ran the war as if he were still trading favors at Jerusalem City Hall.

Today, Olmert got a slight boost from the leak of a secret U.S. State Department letter from the war, in which John Bolton, then UN Ambassador, blames Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for capitulating to the French in the last hours of the war. This bolsters Olmert’s claim that he had to launch Israel’s last-minute offensive, in which 33 IDF soldiers were killed, because things had gone bad at the negotiation table. According to Bolton, however, the offensive had no impact whatever on the final agreement. So it is hard to believe this is the kind of spin Olmert really wants: Not incompetent, just impotent?

Every day Olmert’s government looks increasingly like the Ottoman Empire in 1914.

While America’s attention is on the primaries, Israelis appear to be on the edge of their next political abyss. Two days from now, the much-feared Winograd Commission will be unleashing its final report on the 2006 Lebanon war, and no one is looking more uncomfortable than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Over the last few weeks there has been a great deal of speculation as to both the contents of the report and its political ramifications, and Olmert has been deep in spin-control. On last Monday night, he announced that he would not step down regardless of the report’s findings — a pretty scary statement, considering that the report could tar him for deep ineptitude. Today he sweatingly announced that his government has “many more years to govern.”

The more Olmert talks, the more his face is obscured by the shadows of vultures circling over his head. For months, about a dozen members of his ruling Kadima party have threatened to bolt if the report turns out bad and Olmert does not resign. Last week, Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu faction pulled out of the coalition, leaving the government with just 67 seats (they need 61 to govern). Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who eagerly seeks Olmert’s post, has been undermining Olmert ever since the war. The Shas party is thinking about pulling its 12 seats out of the coalition over negotiations with the Palestinians. Olmert ‘s popularity has bottomed out, with his party getting only 10 seats in a recent poll (as compared to their current 29). Oh, and let’s not forget that Olmert is currently under multiple criminal investigations. But the biggest vulture of them all is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor party holds 19 seats in the coalition, and who may lose a great deal of public support if he cannot take a principled stand against Olmert.

The Winograd report has the potential to tip any of these over the edge. The report will probably lay heavy blame on then-IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who failed to prepare the military for war and failed to run the war while it was happening; and on the mustachioed then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose breathtaking ignorance of military affairs raises serious questions about the merits of parliamentary democracy. But the real questions will rise about Olmert, who laid out major objectives for the war, none of which were achieved; and who ran the war as if he were still trading favors at Jerusalem City Hall.

Today, Olmert got a slight boost from the leak of a secret U.S. State Department letter from the war, in which John Bolton, then UN Ambassador, blames Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for capitulating to the French in the last hours of the war. This bolsters Olmert’s claim that he had to launch Israel’s last-minute offensive, in which 33 IDF soldiers were killed, because things had gone bad at the negotiation table. According to Bolton, however, the offensive had no impact whatever on the final agreement. So it is hard to believe this is the kind of spin Olmert really wants: Not incompetent, just impotent?

Every day Olmert’s government looks increasingly like the Ottoman Empire in 1914.

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Dealing with Hamas?

Noah Pollak is right to draw attention in an earlier post to events in Gaza of the last few days. Israel has taken out, stunningly, some of the top people in Islamic Jihad in Gaza, including Majed al-Harazin, their military commander, who has been responsible for hundreds of Kassam missiles launched at Israeli communities in recent months. The dramatic video of the takeout, shot from an IDF drone, can be seen here.

Yet the picture Noah describes of Israel stepping up pressure on “Hamas and Islamic Jihad” could be a little off. Israel is targeting only leaders of the Jihad, and Hamas’s response has been unusually subdued. After the attacks Monday night, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, told an Israeli TV reporter that he would be willing to talk with Israel through a third party. The organization has condemned the attacks, but stopped short of declaring that they will retaliate, as they usually do. And today Israel’s deputy Prime Minister and former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz says that Israel should take Haniyeh up on his offer.

It’s pretty unclear what’s really going on. It could just be that Noah is right, and that Hamas’s leaders are moderating their tone because they fear they might be next on the hit list, as one analyst has suggested. But there’s another possibility as well: that these hits reflect some kind of deal worked out between Israel and Hamas. For instance: Israel takes out Hamas’s main Islamist rival in Gaza, helping consolidate Haniyeh’s hold on the strip, but also deals a blow to Kassam launchers, scores points with the Israeli public, and gives Olmert a much-needed miltiary success as he faces mutiny in his own party in advance of next month’s release of the Winograd Commission report, which may blame him for massive failure in last year’s Lebanon war. Either way, senior terrorists are taking a big hit, and power is shifting in the Strip.

Noah Pollak is right to draw attention in an earlier post to events in Gaza of the last few days. Israel has taken out, stunningly, some of the top people in Islamic Jihad in Gaza, including Majed al-Harazin, their military commander, who has been responsible for hundreds of Kassam missiles launched at Israeli communities in recent months. The dramatic video of the takeout, shot from an IDF drone, can be seen here.

Yet the picture Noah describes of Israel stepping up pressure on “Hamas and Islamic Jihad” could be a little off. Israel is targeting only leaders of the Jihad, and Hamas’s response has been unusually subdued. After the attacks Monday night, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, told an Israeli TV reporter that he would be willing to talk with Israel through a third party. The organization has condemned the attacks, but stopped short of declaring that they will retaliate, as they usually do. And today Israel’s deputy Prime Minister and former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz says that Israel should take Haniyeh up on his offer.

It’s pretty unclear what’s really going on. It could just be that Noah is right, and that Hamas’s leaders are moderating their tone because they fear they might be next on the hit list, as one analyst has suggested. But there’s another possibility as well: that these hits reflect some kind of deal worked out between Israel and Hamas. For instance: Israel takes out Hamas’s main Islamist rival in Gaza, helping consolidate Haniyeh’s hold on the strip, but also deals a blow to Kassam launchers, scores points with the Israeli public, and gives Olmert a much-needed miltiary success as he faces mutiny in his own party in advance of next month’s release of the Winograd Commission report, which may blame him for massive failure in last year’s Lebanon war. Either way, senior terrorists are taking a big hit, and power is shifting in the Strip.

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Barak’s Back

After six years out of public life, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister from 1999-2001, re-emerged as Minister of Defense a little over three months ago—and rarely has someone effected such a dramatic improvement, in such a short period of time, of Israel’s standing in the region. When Barak was elected Labor Party leader in June and obtained the defense portfolio, Israel was in the midst of several crises. Some of these had been exacerbated by Israeli mishandling, but all of them demanded far more in the way of self-assured and competent leadership than what the Olmert administration (and especially Barak’s feckless predecessor at Defense, Amir Peretz) were able to offer: the 2006 Lebanon War had gone badly and emboldened Syria and Iran; the Winograd Commission report had exposed a great deal of genuinely astonishing incompetence in the Israeli political and military echelon; Hamas had just taken Gaza; tensions along the border with Syria were escalating; and perhaps worst of all, there existed inside of Israel a debilitating lack of confidence in the government’s ability to handle the impending challenges.

The mood in Israel today is hardly one of wild optimism, especially regarding Iran, but Barak’s leadership has already demonstrated both to the Israeli public and to antagonistic regimes that the IDF intends to correct its blunders. According to many reports, Barak’s first priority upon returning to the government was planning Israel’s recent strike on Syria, a sophisticated and daring mission that appears to have been a perfect success on many levels—not least of which is a demonstration to Syria and Iran that the Israeli air force can easily defeat their new Russian air defense systems, and is not afraid of trying. Barak has warned Hamas that it faces a large-scale ground operation in Gaza in response to continued rocket fire, and has declared the implementation of comprehensive missile defense to be a central precondition of any IDF withdrawal from the West Bank. Read More

After six years out of public life, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister from 1999-2001, re-emerged as Minister of Defense a little over three months ago—and rarely has someone effected such a dramatic improvement, in such a short period of time, of Israel’s standing in the region. When Barak was elected Labor Party leader in June and obtained the defense portfolio, Israel was in the midst of several crises. Some of these had been exacerbated by Israeli mishandling, but all of them demanded far more in the way of self-assured and competent leadership than what the Olmert administration (and especially Barak’s feckless predecessor at Defense, Amir Peretz) were able to offer: the 2006 Lebanon War had gone badly and emboldened Syria and Iran; the Winograd Commission report had exposed a great deal of genuinely astonishing incompetence in the Israeli political and military echelon; Hamas had just taken Gaza; tensions along the border with Syria were escalating; and perhaps worst of all, there existed inside of Israel a debilitating lack of confidence in the government’s ability to handle the impending challenges.

The mood in Israel today is hardly one of wild optimism, especially regarding Iran, but Barak’s leadership has already demonstrated both to the Israeli public and to antagonistic regimes that the IDF intends to correct its blunders. According to many reports, Barak’s first priority upon returning to the government was planning Israel’s recent strike on Syria, a sophisticated and daring mission that appears to have been a perfect success on many levels—not least of which is a demonstration to Syria and Iran that the Israeli air force can easily defeat their new Russian air defense systems, and is not afraid of trying. Barak has warned Hamas that it faces a large-scale ground operation in Gaza in response to continued rocket fire, and has declared the implementation of comprehensive missile defense to be a central precondition of any IDF withdrawal from the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the IDF has stepped up the intensity of its training, especially in reserve units and among ground forces, and has begun pouring resources into developing a multi-tiered missile defense system that will be capable of defeating every type of enemy rocket. The IDF is also developing sophisticated countermeasures for installation on its Merkava tanks to defend against the kind of advanced anti-tank missiles that proved so deadly in southern Lebanon last summer. And Barak has pursued all of these operations and goals with an uncharacteristic sense of quiet determination, bluntly warning the Israeli public in one of his few public appearances against being “deceived by the illusion of a bogus calm.”

Barak has even attempted to rescue Gilad Shalit from captivity in Gaza, with a recent mission in which the Hamas chief who was in charge of the Gaza territory from which terrorists tunneled into Israel to abduct Shalit was himself abducted by IDF special operators, apparently dressed as members of Hamas’s Executive Force. The reemergence of Ehud Barak is emblematic of one of Israel’s greatest strengths: its ability to evaluate failure, assign blame, and quickly take corrective action. During the past three months, Israel has significantly renewed the deterrence and credibility of its armed forces. And Israel’s enemies surely have noticed.

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A Country on Hold

Here’s how Nahum Barnea, perhaps Israel’s most prominent columnist, anticipated the release yesterday afternoon of the long-awaited Winograd Committee report on the 2006 war in Lebanon:

We experienced a failed war during the past summer. It was Israel’s most exposed war. We knew in real time almost everything that was said in the cabinet and in the corridors of the General Headquarters; we knew about the mishaps and the foul-ups, about the army’s helplessness at the frontlines and the collapse of the home front.

It wasn’t the hunger for answers that led to the establishment of the Winograd Commission; it was the need for punishment.

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Here’s how Nahum Barnea, perhaps Israel’s most prominent columnist, anticipated the release yesterday afternoon of the long-awaited Winograd Committee report on the 2006 war in Lebanon:

We experienced a failed war during the past summer. It was Israel’s most exposed war. We knew in real time almost everything that was said in the cabinet and in the corridors of the General Headquarters; we knew about the mishaps and the foul-ups, about the army’s helplessness at the frontlines and the collapse of the home front.

It wasn’t the hunger for answers that led to the establishment of the Winograd Commission; it was the need for punishment.

What is curious about this need, which is palpable, is how restrained its manifestations have been.

Olmert’s 3-percent popularity rating is within the pollsters’ margin of error—or as some have suggested, within the realm of the fat content of cottage cheese. Yet there have not been the mass rallies and media clamor that have brought down previous governments. A strange sense of passivity and resignation has set in. For months, Israel has felt like a country on hold.

On Thursday, a rally criticizing the Olmert government is scheduled in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 just after speaking to a large pro-government demonstration. The big question: whether this rally will be large enough—somewhere significantly over 100,000 people—to end our national sleepwalk, or will be small enough to brush off.

If the rally is a bust, it will be because, as much as the public wants to be rid of Olmert, it is not happy about the likely alternatives to him. Polls show that former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was run out of office in 1999 in a seemingly career-ending defeat, is poised for a comeback. But the rump Likud party he heads now holds only about one-tenth of the Knesset’s seats. So the public, having become disillusioned with three major paradigms in rapid succession—”Greater Israel,” Oslo, and Sharon’s unilateralism—may see no better alternative even to a government it deems to have failed.

One can only hope that Israel’s next leader, whoever it is, is able to exceed the public’s low expectations. One can also draw comfort from the fact that the same war that discredited Israel’s political and military leadership also demonstrated the resilience of the Israeli people under fire, and the courage and motivation of the country’s soldiers. For its part, the IDF already has new leadership and is busy learning the lessons of the last war. In its ranks, readiness is the new watchword of the day.

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