When the echoes of the Yom Kippur War died down, a consensus took hold among the public to the effect that the prime minister, Golda Meir, should not be held responsible for the war's failures. When the Lebanon War ended in 1982 the public absolved the prime minister, Menachem Begin, of responsibility for its complications, including the Sabra and Shatila massacres. These popular responses were confirmed by the respective decisions of the Agranat and Kahan commissions, which investigated the failures of the two wars.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, is now expected to bear the sin of the failure of the Second Lebanon War; and this conclusion reached by the public has already received confirmation in the Winograd Committee's interim report. Olmert deserves an answer as to why the public is being stricter with him than with his two predecessors.
Golda Meir was acquitted in the court of public opinion because she was seen as a quintessential civilian, without any real understanding of security issues. She had at her disposal an expert and experienced defense minister (Moshe Dayan) who supervised the operations of the Israel Defense Forces on her behalf. The spontaneous reactions to the outcome of the Yom Kippur War reflected a distinction between the responsibility of the prime minister for the failures and that of the defense minister.
The Agranat Commission praised Golda's functioning on the eve of the war and during it, and was forgiving toward Dayan's behavior (among other things it determined that he had no particular responsibility stemming from his security background), thus creating a sharp distinction between the responsibility of the political leadership and that of the military leadership.
The army's supreme command was found responsible for the erroneous conduct that led to the outbreak of the war and to its problematic development, and it was this body that was required to answer for that. In other words, the commission, along with the general public, ruled that the disappointing results of the campaign did not stem from the flawed functioning of the prime minister, but rather from the Israel Defense Forces inadequate performance.
Begin was not blamed for the failure of the Lebanon War in 1982 because he was considered a prime minister who lacked any real security background, who placed the management of the country's security issues in the hands of a well-known expert, Ariel Sharon. The Kahan Commission confirmed this viewpoint when it ruled that Begin was allowed to rely on the optimistic and reassuring reports of the defense minister. The commission also ruled that Sharon had not involved Begin in the critical decision: To allow the Christian Phalange to enter the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
The commission did not expand on that (except for expressing surprise at Sharon's behavior), but today we know that under Begin's nose, in June 1982, a clandestine operational plan was implemented, which brought the IDF to Beirut. In other words, the public did not hold Begin to account for the disappointing outcome of the First Lebanon War because it was attributed to the behavior of the IDF under the leadership of the defense minister.
Olmert, however, now stands accused by public opinion, in spite of the fact that he is a civilian inexperienced in military matters, because he did not have the wisdom to appoint an authoritative defense minister. The choice of Amir Peretz (or Olmert's acceptance of this irresponsible choice by the Labor Party) is what is leading Olmert to the political scaffold.
Although the Winograd Committee's interim report expressed a forgiving attitude toward the prime minister regarding Peretz' appointment (when it ruled that it did not consider it a failure, because it was a decision whose circumstances were political), it ruled that Peretz had "failed in carrying out the entire range of his duties" and Olmert was involved in every stage of the decisions leading to the war and to its development.
In other words, the person who entrusted the defense portfolio to a man who looks at the battlefield through covered binoculars accepted the responsibility of navigating the course of the war on his own, and therefore bears personal responsibility for its outcome and its cost.
If this diagnosis does not convince Olmert, he should recall that in the final analysis, both Golda and Begin paid the requisite public price for their moral responsibility for the failed wars that were waged under their command. Golda resigned from public life under the pressure of public opinion, and Begin became a recluse in his home because of the pangs of conscience caused by the war.
Sooner or later, Olmert will also have to vacate his seat.
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