Israeli premier testifies about Hezbollah war

Times Staff Writer

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert testified for more than six hours Thursday before a commission investigating the performance of Israel’s government and military during last summer’s conflict in Lebanon.

Olmert’s office declined to comment on what the prime minister told the panel during the closed-door hearing, but he had been expected to defend the government’s decisions during the war with Hezbollah guerrillas and to characterize the outcome as a win for Israel.

Olmert was scheduled to be the final witness to go before the government-appointed commission, whose findings could bolster or politically weaken further the prime minister and his defense minister, Amir Peretz.


Both leaders have faced abysmal approval ratings and persistent calls to resign since the war ended without a clear victor after 34 days of fighting. The army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, quit last month amid criticism over the military’s handling of the war.

Many Israelis viewed the war’s outcome as a defeat for their vaunted military, and the five-member Winograd Commission is the most sweeping attempt to examine the wartime decisions of Israel’s leaders. Olmert appointed the panel after rejecting calls for an independent commission, which proponents said would be freer to criticize leaders than one named by the prime minister.

Olmert has sought to portray the war as a triumph, saying the Aug. 14 cease-fire improved security conditions for Israel by pushing Hezbollah fighters away from the country’s northern border and clearing the way for a 15,000-strong force of Lebanese soldiers and international troops to guard against flare-ups.

But many Israelis were angered by reports during the conflict that soldiers were poorly equipped in the battlefield, unclear about the war’s aims and confused by frequently changing orders. Israelis were shaken by the army’s inability to stop daily bombardments by Hezbollah fighters, who launched nearly 4,000 rockets into northern Israel and sent thousands of residents fleeing the border region. Moreover, the military neither smashed Hezbollah nor freed two captive Israeli soldiers, objectives cited by officials during the campaign.

The inquiry panel, headed by retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd, has also heard from Halutz, Peretz and other officials and is expected to issue its interim findings by mid-March. The conclusions will be widely read as a verdict on the results of the conflict and whether any of Israel’s political and military leaders deserve special blame.

A critical report would probably worsen political troubles for Olmert, who is under investigation over his role in the privatization of a major bank two years ago, and Peretz, facing a challenge for leadership of the center-left Labor Party.

In a poll published last week in the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, 74% of respondents said Olmert should quit, and 84% said Peretz should go.

The Lebanon conflict began July 12 when Hezbollah fighters crossed into northern Israel and captured the two soldiers in a raid; the United Nations brokered the cease-fire. At least 800 Lebanese and more than 150 Israelis were killed.

Critics in Israel, especially reserve military officers, have questioned virtually every aspect of the war’s management, including the decision for an immediate major counterattack, a reliance on airpower instead of ground troops and the decision to launch a costly last-minute ground offensive as the cease-fire was nearing approval.

Internal investigations by the army found fault with the military leadership, including a failure to set clear goals.