Olmert: Israel Can Be Proud of Peretz, but IDF Let Itself Down During the War

The Winograd Committee questioned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert primarily on four issues, a heavily censored transcript of Olmert's testimony that the panel released yesterday reveals. These were the decision to go to war on July 12, the appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister, the government's decision-making process, and the decision to launch a major ground operation just before a cease-fire agreement ended the Second Lebanon War.

Olmert told the committee, which investigated the war, that "the army disappointed itself" during the campaign. Responding to a question by committee member Menachem Einan on whether he should have been more skeptical in his dealings with the army, "which disappointed to some degree," Olmert replied: "Something in the concept of deploying the forces, something in the concept of controlling the forces, something was not like what we had expected, unfortunately, and undoubtedly this created a gap between our capabilities for making gains and what we gained in practice."

Olmert was critical of the Israel Defense Forces' performance in other segments of his testimony as well. For instance, he said, referring to two of the war's early engagements: "If Maroun al-Ras had looked different, if Bint Jbail had looked different, it could be that we would not have reached the point we reached." He was full of praise for the courage displayed by both soldiers and officers, but said that "we are talking about the results, about what the army calls failures. About a new language of commands that no one understood."

Regarding the appointment of Peretz as defense minister, Olmert said: "Amir Peretz is a story of which, from many points of view, the state of Israel can be proud. A boy from Sderot, a fighter in the IDF, injured in the army, a mayor, someone who built an impressive public platform, won the elections for the Histadrut [labor union] and became its leader, won the Labor Party elections, beat all the stars, all the leaders - Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak ... Those 19 seats [worth of voters] that supported him for prime minister - what, they weighed no national considerations? What?! Did they think he was a person of no value?"

Olmert explained that "in our system, we make appointments according to political considerations ... I had to decide whether to go into a coalition with Labor ... in which either it controlled the economy and not defense, or it controlled the Defense Ministry and not the Finance Ministry."

The panel pressed him on why an experienced deputy was not appointed to the Defense Ministry, but did not get an answer.

"What did you think in retrospect about how the two of you functioned during the war?" asked Professor Ruth Gavison. Olmert responded: "None of the substantive failures that emerged is the result of the defense minister's conduct. I am being honest with you. I am not doing public relations for anyone here. The flow between us during the war was good."

Olmert was emotional in his description of the decision to order a ground operation during the war's final days. "If there is a moment in my life, in all my 61 years, that I can point to and say ?that was the hardest moment,' this was it. Afterward I understood everything I had ever read by historians and experts - what the meaning of loneliness is when responsibility lies solely on your shoulders."

Einan pressed him: "Why not a week earlier? Why not two weeks earlier?" Olmert: "Because a week earlier, the army did not ask for it."

"What would you do differently?" Gavison asked him at the end.

"Maybe I would have gathered the Forum of Seven [ministers] more often for consultations," Olmert replied. "Perhaps I would have consulted them more on diplomatic matters ... Certainly I also made mistakes, but at the key junctions when critical decisions were made, we acted responsibly, and in my view, also very reasonably."