Where Does the Buck Stop?

The prime minister does not intend to put his personal responsibility to the test over the calamity that befell the country in the past month.

There was a sign on the desk of former U.S. president Harry Truman declaring that "The Buck Stops Here." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paraphrased the responsibility inherent in that statement when he declared off the Knesset podium Monday that he is not asking anyone to share responsibility for initiating the war or the manner in which it was run. However, unlike the American president, he does not appear intent on carrying through with his promise. After all, in the same breath he announced that "we do not have the luxury of becoming mired in unrestrained wrangling and mutual recriminations."

The message is clear: the prime minister's noble declaration lacks credibility; he does not intend to put his personal responsibility to the test over the calamity that befell the country in the past month. And as if in an effort to remove all doubts that his noble declaration is mere lip service, his associates leaked an hour later that he had opposed the unfortunate decision to throw into the fight thousands more troops, once the UN Security Council declared a cessation to the hostilities. "The defense minister and IDF were the ones pushing for this move," Olmert's aides explained.

Whichever way you look at it, if the prime minister opposed the broadening of the war, why did he succumb to the pressure of the military establishment? And, if he did approve it, how dare his aides attempt and clear him, in retrospect, of the responsibility for its painful results (33 dead soldiers)? Furthermore, how does the decision to rush toward the Litani River fit with the frenzied disposition at the IDF, as the flames are dying, to withdraw "quickly and carefully" most of the troops from Lebanese soil? And, if Olmert indeed did not intend to broaden the war and was more inclined toward a cease-fire, why did he agree to the dismissal of the head of the Northern Command a day earlier? After all, if the war is about to end, why is it necessary to humiliate the commander of the war front during the last day of the fighting?

Just like his speech in the Knesset Sunday, from the first minute and throughout the conflict there appears to be a pathetic chasm between Olmert's declared intentions and his ability (or willingness) to carry them out. Olmert posed goals for the war that were impossible to achieve ("bringing back the abducted soldiers," "destroying the military strength of Hezbollah"), he drew a false picture of the situation ("the home front is strong," "we are winning"), and he presented the results of the war in a misleading light ("strategic change in the Middle East," "in every battle our soldiers overcame Hezbollah").

The Security Council resolution, the most important diplomatic gain of the war, may also prove to be hollow, and the good intentions that pave it may prove to be impossible to implement. Moreover, Olmert's declaration that Israel will continue to hunt Hezbollah's leadership under Hassan Nasrallah suggests, in fact, continuation of the armed confrontation. After all, the government will have to undertake violent action inside Lebanese territory, if the appropriate opportunity arises, in order to carry out this intention, and who can guarantee that such action will not result in a renewal of strikes against Israel's home front?

When Olmert announces that he, above all others, is responsible for the way the war was carried out, but avoids reaching the necessary personal conclusions, he is behaving according to norms that have dominated public life in recent years: the declaration is enough. In other words, there is no need to pay the price that problematic behavior demands. This is how public figures (and journalists) act when they make "disclosures" after they find themselves in a jam, that is how politicians behave when they are caught being wicked, and this is how generals and chiefs of staff respond when reality blows up in their face ("we were not surprised").

Normally, the way the admission is made allows those who have failed to avoid paying the price: their failure is transformed from being unacceptable behavior or a display of outrageous performance into a mere moment of discomfort. Olmert hopes, or assumes, that this is how things will turn out. Perhaps. Nonetheless, he must take into account that a Moti Ashkenazi-like figure will emerge and hold a hunger strike in front of his residence or office, demanding an explanation for the deaths of 118 soldiers, 40 civilians, and the rest of the damages of this war.