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Israel: The Winograd Effect

Ehud Olmert.

Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert.

"There aren't enough people," was a common complaint among the thousands of Israelis who gathered recently in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister of Defense Amir Peretz to resign. A heat wave was doing its best to sap the streets of energy and spirit that Thursday evening, a few days after the release of the Winograd Report. The report, commissioned by Olmert to investigate the handling of the recent war in Lebanon, offered no comfort to the prime minister and many questions for Israelis.

Despite the heat, an estimated 100,000 people turned out to call for their leader to go home.

"Ehud Olmert, you said you work for us; Olmert, you are fired!" said the evening's keynote speaker, author Meir Shalev. "Amir Peretz, you said [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah will never forget your name. Neither will we."

I moved among the crowd, gauging what exactly had stirred them to come out to the square to protest. "We have to send a clear message to those in charge that they failed, and they need to take personal responsibility for their failures. It isn't a matter of left or right but a matter of civil responsibility," said Dafna Dor, the CEO of a nonprofit helping to improve the education of underprivileged students.

Dafna, a left-wing voter, doesn't want an early election, but others in the crowd felt it was essential. "We should have a new election to start again from scratch," said Chava Ravid, a 60-year-old farmer who had traveled from the north of Israel and had spent frightening hours last summer in a shelter, protecting herself from Katyusha rockets during the war. "It is important for me to bring down this government. Even though I don't know who will come next, I still keep hoping it will be better."

Some in the crowd were young reservists in civilian clothes. "We fought before in Lebanon, and we can win again, but we need the appropriate leadership to do so," one of them told me.

Eliyahu Winograd, the 81-year-old former judge who heads the commission, didn't pull any punches in his initial assessment of Olmert's actions.

Eliyahu Winograd, the 81-year-old former judge who heads the commission, didn't pull any punches in his initial assessment of Olmert's actions. His report has shaken the political system in Israel. Back in September, when Olmert commissioned a governmental inquiry rather than opting for a more independent state inquiry, he probably felt he was in safe territory. However, in reality, the decision has turned around to bite him.

The report says, "The prime minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one. He made his decision without systematic consultation with others, especially those outside the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] and despite not having experience in external-political and military affairs.

"All of these," the report continued, "add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence."

Minister of Defense Amir Peretz came under similar critisism.

Peretz "did not have knowledge or experience in military, political or governmental matters," the report stated. "He made his decisions during this period without systematic consultations with experienced political and professional experts, including those outside the security establishment."

Although this is only an interim report, focusing on decisions made during the first five days of the war, its publication has sparked political turmoil. One government member resigned the day after it was published and Zipi Livni, the minister of foreign affairs and second in comand, called for Olmert to resign. But her remark was nothing more than a whisper, as she kept her place beside Olmert at the government table.

Opposition leader,Benjamin Netanyahu, has so far exercised restraint, but he has called on Olmert to announce early elections. "Most of the people understand that those who failed aren't the ones who can make the repairs," he said.

Opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has so far exercised restraint, but he has called on Olmert to announce early elections. "Most of the people understand that those who failed aren't the ones who can make the repairs," he said.

Other opposition members were not so diplomatic. "Olmert, Peretz and Dan Halutz (the former chief of staff, who resigned a few months ago) are an historical accident. We are lucky we didn't hit a truck while they were at the steering wheel," right-wing Knesset member Arie Eldad wrote in a newspaper column. "The Winograd panel should have revoked their driving licenses for good."

The release of the report has left Olmert overwelmed. The cameras captured him the following day looking exhausted, too tired even to keep his eyes open during an official ceremony. But Olmert is a wise politician. "This government made the decisions, and this government will correct the faults," he responded. "It would be incorrect to resign, and I do not intend to do so." He has quelled any imminent uprising in his own party ranks, and the rest of the coalition has stood by him -- for now.

But Olmert does't have the support of the people. He knows this; his government knows this; and the entire Knesset knows this. But they are all attached to their seats of power, and many know they will not be part of a future leadership of Israel.

In the current climate, even American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled her visit to the region, knowing no good would come of it.

One week after the protests, the political winds have calmed. Except for a few showing up to protest outside Olmert's house and on the streets, most Israelis are back to a resigned and disgruntled silence. Perhaps it's the summer heat or the relatively good economy, but more likely it's the lack of any real political alternative that has dampened the protest mood.

Yossi Klein Halevy, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center think tank in Jerusalem, told The San Francisco Chronicle that the Winograd Report had focused attention on the general malaise of Israel's political leadership.

"We realize now that there is no one from the generation of heroes to whom we can turn to save us," said Klein Halevy. "This is a generation of mediocre leaders."

"We realize now that there is no one from the generation of heroes to whom we can turn to save us," said Yossi Klein Halevy. "This is a generation of mediocre leaders."

Increased violence on both the Lebanese front and near the Gaza Strip in the last two years has left the public jittery. In a 2007 poll by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, 76 percent saw a medium-to-high chance of an outbreak of war between Israel and an Arab country or Hezbollah in the next three years, up from 37 percent in 2006 and 39 percent in 2005.

These days, it's the main concern in Israel. Are we waiting for the next war or the next elections? Maybe both. With all the candidates in the forthcoming election for chairman of the Labor party declaring they will not serve under Olmert (with the exception of Amir Peretz, though he's unlikely to win), most Israelis are sitting on the sidelines until August, when the final Winograd Commission report will be published. If Olmert is still around then, it's likely that the conclusions will leave him no choice but to resign.

Hadas Ragolsky is based in Tel Aviv and a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World.