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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Winograd Commission final report

Executive Summary

The Winograd Commission of Inquiry has now published its final report on the handling of the Second Lebanon War by the military and political echelons. The report reviewed the preparations and execution of the military and diplomatic goals by the Israeli leadership, and stated that the war failed to achieve its objectives. However, the report does not make any clear personal recommendations against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The following analysis reviews the key findings presented this evening by the commission’s head, former justice Eliyahu Winograd, provides the background for the report’s publication and looks forward to the possible political scenarios.

The main conclusions

Generally, the report focused most of its criticism at the severe failures of the military and political leaderships. However, the commission avoids placing individual responsibility, and instead understands the failures as the responsibility of the military and political “systems”:

  • Generally, the war was characterised by “grave failures and defects.”
  • Both the military and the political leaderships failed to plan and execute the missions of the war.
  • The commission did not include any personal recommendations, but stressed that this does not mean that personal responsibility does not exist.
  • The commission concluded that the decision to launch a military ground operation two days before the approval of the ceasefire agreement at the UN was taken after “reasonable” military and diplomatic considerations.
  • However, the decision to launch a ground operation in the final stages of the war was taken without preparation and with no achievable targets.
  • The IDF failed to use its sizable advantages to achieve a victory in the fighting against Hezbollah.
  • The IDF General Staff did not convene at any point during the war, a fact the proved detrimental to the comprehension and execution of the war’s objectives.
  • The commission stressed the commitment of ground forces, the Air Force and the reserve forces during the fighting.
  • The responsibility to translate the commission’s recommendations can only be done by the Israeli public and the political system.

Background

The Winograd Commission was appointed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert following a public demand to investigate the handling of the war by both the military echelons and the country’s political leadership. Criticism of the management of the war was first voiced by soldiers and journalists during the different stages of the fighting. However, the most severe critical protest began immediately after the ceasefire agreement brokered at the United Nations on 12 August 2006. The picture portrayed by many of the soldiers involved in the fighting presented a harsh picture of disorder, lack of communication, inappropriate equipment and lack of proper training in the years prior to the war. The criticism was quickly turned from specific military aspects to the broader decision making procedures before and during the war by Israel’s political leadership. Most of the criticism was directed at the IDF chief of staff during the war, Dan Halutz, then-defence minister Amir Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Grassroots movements of reserve soldiers, bereaved families and civil society groups were able to garner popular support from the general public and were successful in forcing the government to appoint an investigation commission to look into the failures of the war. This success was only partial, however, as their demand to establish a state investigation commission was not answered and the investigation was instead handled by a government commission, which does not possess the independent authority given to state commissions. Some analysts have suggested that PM Olmert’s ability to establish a commission with limited investigative powers benefited him and prevented the commission from making obligatory personal recommendations against individuals in the military command and in the government. Unlike a state investigation commission, a government commission’s recommendations do not hold the same legal weight.

The commission, headed by former justice Eliyahu Winograd, began its work in October 2006 despite public scepticism regarding its mandate and ability to fully point out those responsible for the war’s failures. However, the commission’s interim report proved that its members were ready to direct personal criticism. The interim report, which focused on the period that led to the war and the first days following its outbreak, launched incredibly harsh criticism at Olmert, Peretz and Halutz. Notably, the report criticised the prime minister for having no “organised plan” in launching the war and called his move “misguided and rash judgment”. The commission also accused Olmert, who lacks significant military experience, of not consulting the military leadership enough, and authorising operations without input from other sources. It further criticised Olmert for failing to foresee the possible outcomes of the war. However, the commission did not condemn Olmert and did not explicitly call for his resignation.

It was beyond the mandate of the commission to directly recommend the resignation of those who were responsible for the failures, though in effect, the strong language of the report brought the resignation of Halutz and Peretz. Despite the explicit criticism of the prime minister’s handling of the war, Olmert refused to give in to political and public demand that he step down, claiming Israel needs stability at this stage, and that new elections would be disruptive to reconstruction efforts. Olmert was able to remain in office mostly because of his extraordinary political skills and his ability to stabilise his coalition and contain the internal rage against his leadership. Olmert was able to take advantage of his rivals’ lack of experience and pass one of the most difficult political challenges faced by an Israeli prime minister. Statements released in preceding days suggest that not much has changed in the prime minister’s close circle and that Olmert remains determined to stay in office. The focus will therefore turn to others in the political system who might be able to challenge Olmert’s leadership, with or without bringing forward early general elections.

Looking ahead: The possible scenarios

There is a degree of historical irony in the date chosen for the publication of the final report of the Winograd Commission, which was appointed to investigate the performance of Israel’s military and political leadership during the Second Lebanon War. Thirty-three years ago to the day, the Agranat official commission of inquiry presented its final report on the handling of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Agranat Commission’s findings led to a political earthquake that resulted in the resignation of then-prime minister Golda Meir, and chief of staff David Elazar. The Agranat Commission conclusions changed the face of Israel’s political landscape, fractured the Israeli Labour party’s historic hegemony and eventually led to the victory of Likud in the 1977 elections. This historical coincidence raises the obvious question of whether the publication of the final Winograd report will lead to such dramatic consequences, and whether the public outcry that followed the publication of the commission’s interim report in April 2007 will recur.

The findings presented in the report are likely to affect both the military establishment and the political arena, though it appears it will affect the military more than the political realm. With regards to the military’s strategic preparations and tactical operations, the report presented unambiguous criticism, pointing to severe malfunctions in the military command’s norms of operation. However, the IDF launched a series of internal inquiries that inspected some of the failures during the war. These included:

  • Hezbollah’s attack on an Israeli border patrol and the kidnapping of two IDF soldiers that sparked the conflict on 12 July 2006
  • The lack of equipment and the neglect of training
  • The Israeli Navy’s investigation into the attack on the Israeli Navy Ship Hanit, which was hit by a Hezbollah missile launched from the Lebanese coast.

The IDF command maintains that these inquiries have effectively reformed the military and that several of those who were involved in the failures have resigned. Yet, the report clearly states that these changes are merely the initial steps and must be followed by a long, thorough and comprehensive reform of fundamental operational norms, decision-making procedures and strategic perceptions.

The political implications of the report are obviously less predictable. The question that has dominated all early analyses was whether Ehud Olmert will be able to survive the criticism and remain in office. Since the end of the war, Olmert has been facing pressure from within the political system and from the general public to take personal responsibility for the failures of the war and step down, but has so far rejected these calls. Many now believe that the prime minister’s future depends on Labour leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak: during the race for the Labour party’s chairmanship, Barak announced that he will reconsider the party’s participation in Olmert’s coalition if the prime minister is condemned by the final Winograd report. Barak already announced that he will not respond immediately to the report. During the coming days, Barak will be following the voices coming from within the Kadima party and also monitor the public response to the report’s findings. With Labour currently losing large portions of its support in recent polls, Barak has no interest in imminent elections. Sources close to Barak, however, believe that another year in the Defence Ministry will help him re-establish his public image and that he would likely agree to hold elections in spring 2009.

Another possible challenge for Olmert’s premiership might come from within his own Kadima party. The party’s leading figures including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Interior Security Minister Avi Dichter and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz remained silent in the past days. Livni, however, agreed to meet with soldiers and bereaved families earlier this week, in what was seen as a hint to a possible opposition to Olmert’s leadership. However, Livni’s hesitant response after the interim report – calling for Olmert’s resignation but taking no active steps like quitting her position – damaged her public image as an honest politician. Livni will not risk being portrayed as indecisive and will likely remain far from the spotlight; if at all, Livni will remain publicly loyal to Olmert and avoid the embarrassment she experienced following her hesitant response to the interim report. Under the current political conditions and Olmert’s ability to preserve his status as Kadima’s leader, it is unlikely that he will be internally forced to step down.

Despite the severe criticism presented in it, the Winograd Commission final report is not expected to lead Barak and the Israeli Labour party to resign from the government imminently. The release of the report has proven not to necessarily be the inescapable end for Olmert, though Barak still holds a deciding role in this. Having said that, the long and medium-term consequences of the report are yet to be seen. As the commission stated in its opening remarks, an inquiry of this sort should not be understood as a sign of weakness. Despite the risk of exposing the country’s failures and the substantial defects revealed, a public investigation of this sort is a signal of a society’s strength and Israel’s willingness to engage in the long and painful process of amending the faults and failures uncovered by the war.