Israel Regroups on Approach to War Inquiry

Times Staff Writer

After one day’s work, the Israeli government suspended its review of the way it conducted the war in Lebanon, officials said Tuesday, as scores of reserve soldiers back from the fighting rallied here to press for the resignation of top political figures.

The Defense Ministry halted the work of its war review committee Monday to give Prime Minister Ehud Olmert more time to decide whether to authorize a fuller examination of Israel’s monthlong air campaign and ground incursion against the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Calls for a more aggressive and independent inquiry have grown louder daily as anger here over what some call indecisive and incompetent wartime leadership has snowballed since a cease-fire took effect last week.

Some of the harshest criticism has come from military reservists, whose voices carry great weight in Israeli society. The veterans protesting in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening demanded that Olmert, his defense minister and the army’s chief of staff step down.


The demonstrators accused the three of rushing into full-scale armed conflict without having adequately laid the military groundwork, and then of dithering over the war’s objectives and how to realize them. That resulted in confusing and sometimes needlessly perilous orders on the ground, they said.

“The big heads should be the ones to go,” said Yossi Avigor, 29, a reserve infantryman who spent two weeks fighting in western Lebanon. “They tried, they failed, they should go home.”

Families of fallen soldiers, as well as civic groups upset by the state’s treatment of northern Israelis who spent weeks under attack from Hezbollah rockets, also have castigated the nation’s leaders. The opposition from so many quarters has presented Olmert’s young government with its severest crisis in less than four months in power.

With many Israelis concluding that the war achieved few of the government’s stated aims -- including the rescue of two reservists whose July 12 capture by Hezbollah guerrillas sparked the offensive -- Olmert is under intense pressure to find a way to prevent the backlash from knocking him and his fledgling Kadima party out of office.

Officials are acutely aware that discontent among reserve soldiers, and the mass movement it sparked, helped bring down the government of former Prime Minister Golda Meir after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a confrontation in which Israel was caught unprepared.

Much of Olmert’s fate is now likely to depend on how he responds to demands for a thorough investigation into his security Cabinet’s management of the recent war, Israel’s second in Lebanon in the last 25 years.

The Defense Ministry’s review committee, which was set up last week and had its first day of work Sunday, was roundly denounced as too weak and beholden to the very officials it would be investigating to produce a hard-hitting, impartial report.

Olmert is now weighing a stronger government-appointed commission or an independent panel appointed by the Supreme Court. The latter would be the most forceful option of all but also the most risky for the prime minister, as the group would have subpoena power and would not shy away from recommending that officials be fired.


“Ehud Olmert knows that the moment he establishes a state commission of inquiry, he may as well have signed his own political death certificate,” political columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Tuesday’s edition of the newspaper Maariv. “He is clinging to a [weaker] governmental commission of inquiry like a drowning man clings to a straw.”

A decision is expected by the end of this week or early next week.

Daniel Kayros of the Movement for Quality Government, a civic group urging an independent inquiry, said a wide-ranging investigation should start immediately, if only so Israel can be better prepared in case hostilities break out again.

“You need someone at the helm who’s going to be effective,” Kayros said, “and even if you pay the price of disturbing the continuity [in government], I don’t think there’s much doubt that ... the state of Israel needs wartime leaders who know how to win the war decisively.”


His organization has lambasted the government for its handling of the home front, where thousands of residents in the north huddled in shelters or fled to the south with little state assistance.

For Avigor, the reservist, nothing less than Olmert’s immediate resignation will do.

Like his fellow soldiers, Avigor complained of shoddy equipment and badly run logistics that resulted in a food and water shortage for his combat unit. He had to buy his own army jacket, with special pockets for ammunition and other supplies, because the military didn’t give him one.

He is careful to make a distinction between his support of the war against Hezbollah and his disgust with how it was prosecuted.


“Everybody here would go to war again if we were called up tomorrow. This is our only country,” Avigor said. “Most of us reserve soldiers believe there will be another war soon. But we want our officers and our politicians to be prepared.”