He Has to Go

In this part of the world, admitting failure and phrases like 'begging for forgiveness' are not even in the dictionary.

We are not Japanese, and even in Japan, failed leaders don't do hara-kiri like they used to. At most, they ask their people for forgiveness and step down. In this part of the world, admitting failure and phrases like "begging for forgiveness" are not even in the dictionary.

President Truman had a sign on his desk that said "the buck stops here." In our neck of the woods, it doesn't stop there. It's passed on, to someone higher up or lower down on the ladder, usually by committees of inquiry - our warped version of Japanese hara-kiri. Why warped? Because responsibility is tossed from one person to the next until it finally stops somewhere. Not necessarily in the lap of the person who is really responsible.

The Kahan Commission, which probed the Sabra and Chatila massacre in Lebanon, decided that Ariel Sharon should be removed from his post as defense minister. The prime minister, Menachem Begin, got off scot-free, although without his okay and his signature there wouldn't have been a war in Lebanon.

It didn't take long before Sharon became a key figure in Israeli politics and the Likud. Round-the-clock protesters holding signs that said "murderer" stood outside Begin's house until they turned him into an emotional wreck and caused his pathetic resignation. Sharon never took responsibility for the massacre, on the grounds that "Arabs killed Arabs."

The Agranat Commission, which investigated the Yom Kippur War, fingered the chief of staff and the head of military intelligence. It never said a word about the failure of the political echelon. The testimony heard by the commission was locked away in a drawer for decades, so that no one knew how the lawyers managed to get the prime minister and defense minister off the hook. Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan were reelected to the Knesset, but they were forced to step down a few months later under pressure from an outraged public.

Ehud Olmert's hope and prayer was that the Winograd Committee would save his skin, but a hitch came along in the form of MK Zahava Gal-On. With the help of a High Court ruling, she forced the committee to publish the testimonies of Olmert, Shimon Peres and Amir Peretz prior to the publication of its interim report. So far, the statements of Peres, the deputy prime minister, and Major General Amos Malka, former chief of military intelligence, have been released. Olmert's testimony, it seems, is being saved until the eve of Passover.

But Olmert (or his cronies) has decided to present a tendentious version of his own by leaking selected bits from his testimony to Haaretz and Maariv. He is not guilty of hasty action, he claims, because the army had already drawn up plans for a major reprisal attack four months earlier, and Israel's "bank of objectives" was defined way back in the days of Ariel Sharon.

One objective in this "bank" had to do with the location of long-range missiles, whose destruction on the first night of the operation exposed what we didn't want Hezbollah to know. Now Iran will presumably equip Hezbollah with even longer range missiles, and we'll have to start the search for them all over again.

It will take a few weeks after the publication of the testimonies and the interim report for the public to figure out where the buck stopped. Meanwhile, there are leaks, and some of the material will be released over the next few days. Major General Malka said in his censored testimony that a short, punitive strike would have been preferable. If the real goal was to wipe out Hezbollah, we would have had to penetrate deep inside Lebanon, and that would have taken months.

Olmert was asked why he decided to give the defense portfolio to Amir Peretz, a party hack totally clueless on military matters. His mind-boggling reply: Labor received the defense portfolio in the wake of a coalition promise, and Labor gave it to Peretz. That may be true, but only to a degree. Olmert was saving finance for his buddy Abraham Hirchson. One wonders whether Olmert, in looking back, has any thoughts on what caused more damage.

The biggest bomb was delivered by Peres, who criticized the way the war was run and how it was approved. If it were up to me, he said, I wouldn't have gone into such a war. The army wasn't ready for battle; the outcome harmed Israel's image; and we lost our power of deterrence in the eyes of the Arabs. So why did he support it? To snag the presidency?

No matter how Olmert comes out of the Winograd probe, he is already a lame duck. He has lost the last vestiges of trust and respect that came with being Sharon's successor, and above all, he has lost the authority and ability to cope with the complex and urgent challenges that lie ahead.

Forget the convergence plan he was so proud of. Forget peace initiatives. Olmert has failed as a leader. He has to go.