Gulf & Middle East
Israeli inquiry panel blasts Olmert over Lebanon war
May 1, 2007 - 10:49:04 AM

Jerusalem, May 1 - An Israeli commission of inquiry has slammed Ehud Olmert's 'severe failure' in the opening days of last summer's indecisive offensive against the Hezbollah, casting a shadow over his future as prime minister and prompting opposition leaders to call for early elections.

But the premier said he had no intention of resigning and would remain in office to implement the recommendations of the report, which he acknowledged were 'severe' and 'tough' in a brief statement on Israeli television Monday evening.

Presenting its much-anticipated interim findings, the commission held Olmert, 61, as well as his defence minister and military chief primarily responsible for 'grave mistakes' in the decision-making toward the war.

The trio launched the offensive against the Lebanese movement hours after its militants captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid on July 12.

The three acted without setting 'clear goals,' fully weighing other options and thinking through a 'detailed, comprehensive' military plan, retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, who heads the commission, told a news conference in Jerusalem.

Defence Minister Amir Peretz failed to hold 'systematic consultations' with experienced experts despite his own lack of experience, which also prevented him from challenging 'in a competent way' both the military and the prime minister.

'In all these ways, the minister of defence failed in fulfilling his duties' Winograd said, and thus 'impaired Israel's ability to respond well to its duties' - severe criticism likely to impact negatively on Peretz's chances in primaries of his Labour Party, Olmert's largest coalition partner, due to be held next month.

Former military chief of staff Dan Halutz, who resigned in January over public criticism of his performance, was slammed too, mainly for failing to alert the political leadership of the military's 'poor state' and ill-preparedness for an extensive ground operation.

A final report covering the second stage of the war until an Aug 14 ceasefire is due to be published in the summer.

Olmert, who took office in May 2006 less than three months before the escalation erupted, has argued in his defence that the war did succeed in altering the status quo in southern Lebanon in Israel's favour, with a larger international peacekeeping force and the Lebanese Army deploying along the border as a result of it.

The Israeli public however appears unconvinced. Only three percent of Israelis view him as 'most-suited' to lead Israel, well behind opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who came first with 30 percent, and four other candidates, according to an opinion poll published early last month.

Netanyahu's spokesperson, Ophir Akunis, said Monday: 'We expect from Olmert that he will carry out what he said, that he will take responsibility and resign.'

Olmert's popularity has suffered also from a number of corruption investigations, including of suspicions that he bought his Jerusalem home for a bargain price in return for a possible quid-pro-quo, and that he tried to benefit two close friends in the privatisation of a leading Israeli bank when finance minister in late 2005.

Israeli media quoted a 'senior member' of his ruling Kadima as saying the party would sooner or later ask him to step down 'to avoid dragging the faction down with him,' possibly after publication of the commission's final report.

At least 1,200 Lebanese, many of them civilians, and 159 Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed in the 33 days of combat, during which Israel launched hundreds of airstrikes on Hezbollah targets and Lebanese infrastructure, and the Shiite militant group fired nearly 4,000 Katyusha rockets at northern Israeli towns and villages.

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