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The five members of the Winograd Committee have yet to write the report of their inquiry into the second Lebanon war, although they have already released its table of contents. They sit from morning to night at the Petroleum Institute in Ramat Aviv, composing drafts and passing them around for review, eating mainly at their desks and occasionally meeting for coffee.

Their skin is noticeably thin: Their desire to prove that they are above being influenced by media reports implies just the opposite. This week they sought to push the war into the enemy's territory.

The Winograd Committee's press statement made the panel into the exact opposite of the Agranat Commission of Inquiry into the Yom Kippur War, whose mandate was limited to the first three days of the war. The Winograd Committee arbitrarily divided its chronological scope into two unequal parts. The first period, six years plus five days, will be addressed in the partial, interim report it is to submit next month. The second period, covering the month of fighting in the North last summer, will be in the final report.

After his dismissal in 1974, Chief of Staff David (Dado) Elazar complained that he should have been judged fit for continued service, based on the entirety of his performance and not only on the beginning of the war. With the Winograd Committee, the situation is reversed: Instead of rendering a comprehensive judgment on the entire period in question, which would likely be unfavorable to the country's political and military leaders, it is focusing on a specific point that does not necessarily reflect what happened later.

Major General (res.) Menachem Einan is the only member of the Winograd Committee who does not hold a Ph.D. With all due respect to higher education, this is precisely one of its problems, as evidenced by the panel's conduct this week: It could write a dissertation on the roots of last summer's war without translating its academic findings into purposeful, succinct statements on the true concerns of the Israeli public - its opinion on the responsibility and the performance of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. If this happens, the public disappointment will be final and not just partial.

The second flaw that seems to be emerging from the interim report is the discrepancy between the conclusions the committee sees fit to publicize and the recommendations that it will not be issuing. The Winograd Committee has stepped into a trap of its own making. If it goes easy on Olmert and Peretz, it will justify the fears surrounding its establishment. If it comes down hard on them, the prime minister and the defense minister will take on the mantle of victims, claiming they did were not afforded an opportunity to respond to the allegations against them.

Pain but no marks

The chairman of the Committee, the retired judge Eliahu Winograd, is furious about being depicted as toothless. He wants to bite, enough to cause pain but not enough to leave a mark. Yes and no both, like the politicians who appointed the committee and are now hovering around it awaiting its results, either anxiously or hopefully. It was the public that created the Winograd Committee, and it is to the court of the public that the committee will return the proverbial ball of responsibility. The panel will draw the conclusions but it is the public that will have to draft any recommendations, via demonstrations, polls and legislative action.

Even if the conclusions are very dire, they will have no immediate meaning if they have no practical consequences.

The report of the Kahan commission of Inquiry into the Sabra and Chatila massacre was harsh in its characterization of prime minister Menachem Begin's conduct: "We are unable to accept the Prime Minister's remarks that he was absolutely unaware of such a danger.... We are unable to accept the position of the Prime Minister that no one imagined that what happened was liable to happen, or what follows from his remarks: that this possibility did not have to be foreseen when the decision was taken to have the Phalangists move into the camps.... The prime minister's lack of involvement in the entire matter casts on him a certain degree of responsibility."

The conclusion: Begin did not fulfill his duty. Recommendation: None. Regarding Begin, as well as foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir, Mossad chief Nahum Admoni and GOC northern command Amir Drori, but not defense minister Ariel Sharon, chief of staff Rafael Eitan, director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguy and division commander brigadier general Amos Yaron, the commission was "of the opinion that it is sufficient to determine responsibility and there is no need for any further recommendations." Begin suffered a crisis that was more personal than political, and resigned less than seven months later. In so doing, he emulated the precedent set by Golda Meir, who, though her dismissal was not recommended by the Agranat Commission, succumbed to pressure and resigned within weeks. The failure of the Kahane Commission to attach recommendations to its fault-finding paved the way for Shamir to succeed Begin as prime minister.

Olmert is no less vulnerable than Meir and Begin; unlike them, he is at the focus of several criminal investigations that are tightening around him. In addition, his power base in his party, the Knesset and the public is shakier than those of Golda after the 1973 war and Begin in 1983.

The Winograd Committee, however, will not be the one to spill the blood. In another political culture, a report that issues harsh conclusions without making recommendations would be perceived as a pistol loaded with a single bullet that is given to the culprit with the understanding that he will lock himself into a room and carry out his own death sentence. Israeli politicians, however, would use the pistol to break out of the room and escape.

Without an explicit recommendation for his dismissal, the Winograd report might even be of fleeting assistance to Olmert. In that case, the High Court of Justice would not rush to accept a petition against Olmert's remaining in office. Any no-confidence motion would be voted down by the majority commanded by the government (barring a revolt within Kadima), allowing Olmert to claim that he has earned back the trust of the Knesset.

According to reports of Olmert's testimony before the committee, the prime minister claimed that he had anticipated the escalation on the Lebanon border. If so, he would also have had to convince the committee that he responded appropriately. For example, after the abduction of Gilad Shalit to Gaza, did Olmert see to it that the heightened alert level for a similar scenario in the north was maintained?

Olmert's testimony could clash with that of Peretz, who chose, apparently on the advice of one of his attorneys, Jacob Weinroth, to turn his lack of military background to his advantage. Instead of reciting the arguments that he had previously memorized, Peretz spoke about the obligation inherent in entrusting the defense portfolio in a democratic government to a civilian whose outlook is not a narrow military one. He expressed regret for failing to building his own security council that could have voiced additional opinions in counterweight to the chief of staff.

Peretz begs for mercy

Those present during his testimony felt that Peretz was, in effect, asking for the court's mercy. This is a human wish, but it is beside the point. Had the Israel Defense Forces operation in Lebanon ended within five days, there would have been no disappointment and no inquiry. The interim report deals with the entry into the war, which would not have been considered so problematic had the potential exit points along the way not been missed. The frustrating continuation of the story is seemingly not known, on the last page of the first part of the report, after the (most likely positive) discussion of the justness of the response to the abduction of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and of the effectiveness of the Israel Air Force operation against Hezbollah's mid-range and long-range rockets. This approach is no less dubious than its polar opposite, which was adopted by Major General (res.) Doron Almog in the military investigation of the abductions in the north. Almog found the failure to foil the abduction particularly grave, followed as it was by the decision to embark on the escalating operation - as if Shalit's abduction in the south was more tolerable, only because it was not followed by a decision to invade Gaza; as if the bodyguard who failed to protect Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London in June 1982 from the assassination that became the pretext for the Lebanon War was responsible for the war.

No convincing argument for halting the partial report can be found in Olmert's July 17 speech to the Knesset, since two weeks later, in speeches to the Union of Local Authorities and the National Defense College, the prime minister was still pledging that the war would continue until the abductees were returned. "You can ask me today why there is no ceasefire," he said on August 1. "The answer is simple: Every additional day erodes their [Hezbollah's] strength."

Like Israel in Lebanon, it appears that the Winograd Committee set out with enthusiasm, got stuck and began looking for ways of escape. This is the impression conveyed by the words of the committee itself, but here, too, there is still room for hope: Until the report is published, it can still be changed.