Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The catharsis Israel needs

Ehud Olmert must go. But would we be better off under Binyamin Netanyahu?

The Winograd Committee, established to examine the Second Lebanon War, determined that a leader who sends his army into battle is obligated to analyze in depth the nature, timing and chances of success of the campaign: "We saw that the rash decisions to go to war made by the government headed by [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert did not meet these conditions."

Thus spoke the five-member committee in May 2007, when it released its interim findings.
Last month, the committee presented its final report, saying, "We want to stress that we stand behind everything we said in the interim report, and [that] the two parts complement each other."

According to the final report, there were "serious failings and shortcomings in the decision-making process." Let's recall that at the top of the decision-making pyramid was Ehud Olmert.

The premier, said the committee, had one of two choices after Hizbullah attacked: "The first was a short, powerful, strong and unexpected blow on Hizbullah, primarily through 'stand-off' firepower. The second option was to bring about a significant change of the reality in the south of Lebanon with a large [-scale] ground operation, including temporary occupation of Lebanon and 'cleaning' it of Hizbullah military infrastructure."

But, said Winograd: "Israel went to war before it decided which option to select, and without an exit strategy...."

The committee concluded that Israel's chances of victory were stymied by the government's failure to deploy the necessary troops for a ground offensive; that Olmert allowed himself to be "dragged" into a belated attack in the last days of the war; that the government showed "no understanding of the theater of operations, of the IDF's readiness and preparedness, and of the basic principles of using military power to achieve a political and diplomatic goal."

Finally, the committee said that no one gave "serious consideration" to whether it was reasonable to achieve anything tangible in the offensive Olmert launched in the last 60 hours of the war, during which 33 IDF soldiers gave their lives.

NOW, I know some pundits are claiming that this report is not damning of Olmert, and that the heaviest criticism was leveled at the IDF. But I'm not so sure.

In a democracy, the civilian commander-in-chief is responsible for defining the army's mission; mission then defines strategy. Absent a mission, how could the IDF win?

It is true that, for inexplicable reasons, the theater commander was hardly speaking to the commanding officer of the north; that the OC Northern Command was hardly speaking to the chief of staff; that the chief of staff was barely talking to the defense minister, and that the defense minister and prime minister were hardly speaking to one another. That accounts for some of what went wrong.

AS THESE words are being written, security forces are on high alert in expectation that Monday's attack in Dimona - which may have emanated from Gaza - might be the start of a new wave of Palestinian terrorism.

A large chunk of the responsibility for events in Gaza (and for the failure to finish the security barrier in the Hebron area) rests not only with Ehud Olmert, but also with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He reportedly did very little consulting with the IDF high command or with the security cabinet even as Israel ratcheted up the pressure on Hamas in the Strip.

Once again - as in the Second Lebanon War - we see a failure to consider all possible scenarios, a refusal to consult, and an over-reliance on improvisation.

Plainly, Barak hasn't changed. He's still impulsive and full of himself. He is not the antidote to our leadership problem.

Bottom line? Olmert must go. Yet Barak is not the guy to replace him. And polls show he would not.

IT IS CLEAR that if elections were held today, the Likud would form the next government. So assuming Binyamin Netanyahu did become prime minister, would Israel be better off? Is he today more credible than Olmert?

The harsh reality is not that Bibi has suddenly become more trustworthy, but that Olmert, by comparison, is so untrustworthy. So, yes, Netanyahu is more credible than Olmert.

But Netanyahu has a history of saying one thing and doing another. He cut a deal with the PLO over Hebron in 1997; he was ready to give up 13 percent of the West Bank to Arafat in the 1998 Wye Agreement; he reportedly sent Ron Lauder to try and work out a deal with Syria's Hafez Assad over the Golan Heights.

As finance minister Netanyahu paid for the disengagement from Gaza, only to quit before its implementation. And, more recently, he could not help himself from talking too much on television about Israel's September 2007 bombing of a suspected nuclear site in Syria.

At the end of the day, Bibi's pragmatism - so long as it does not devolve into the kind of self-serving opportunism Olmert has fallen into - might prove an asset. But the Israeli body politic can't afford another leader who says one thing and does another. The effect on public morale would be simply too devastating.

In his Monday night attack against Olmert from the Knesset podium - "Would the captain of the Titanic have been given another command?" - Bibi rose to the occasion.

The opposition leader had been strangely silent lest he ruin his chances of coasting into the premiership. He never really articulated the case against Annapolis. Though he spoke out on Jerusalem, here too he was a bit disingenuous, as the division of Jerusalem - whatever that means - is the least immediate of the threats facing Israel in the charade talks with the hapless Mahmoud Abbas.

Anyway, Netanyahu's rhetorical abilities have never been in question. Now, more is needed: Specifically, the opposition leader should present an unambiguous platform that tells Israelis not just what the Likud opposes, but what it proposes, and how it hopes to achieve its goals.

WHEN YITZHAK Rabin returned to power, he gave us Oslo; when Ariel Sharon came back from the political wilderness, he brought us disengagement.

We all make mistakes. The real question is: At age 58, is Netanyahu able to learn from his? Can he reinvent himself and lead Israel in the treacherous times ahead? I hope so. Because Ehud Olmert really must go.

In the long term, a key answer to our systemic problems would be electoral reform and a restructuring of the political system. But more immediately, Israel needs a catharsis; and, for better or worse, Binyamin Netanyahu is the only candidate that can offer it.

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