Olmert's Double Failure

There's something disturbing about Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's version of the circumstances in which the Second Lebanon War broke out.

There's something disturbing about Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's version of the circumstances in which the Second Lebanon War broke out. In his testimony to the Winograd Committee and in subsequent interviews, Olmert said that from the day he stepped into office in January 2006, he had prepared for the possibility of the abduction of soldiers to Lebanon, and later on decided to change his predecessor's policy of restraint and react to provocations by Hezbollah. As such, he accepted and approved the targets the Israel Defense Forces presented to him, and waited for an eruption.

Criticism of Olmert's version has focused on his responsibility for the army's preparedness. If he had anticipated a conflagration in the North, his critics argue, why did he appoint the inexperienced Amir Peretz as defense minister and why did he not ensure that the IDF was preparing to fight Hezbollah? These arguments are important, but they miss the main point: The retaliatory operation Olmert approved was aerial not ground, and the air force was prepared and carried it out successfully. The appointment of Peretz was mistaken, but it did not affect the operational plans, which had been approved previously.

The main problem lies in what Olmert did not do: Once he decided to end the restraint in the North he did not prepare the public for the possibility of war nor did he enlist the international community to prevent it. This is his double failure. The government's responsibility does not end with hearing intelligence assessments and approving the army's plans; the prime minister's supreme responsibility is to use all the means at his disposal to prevent war.

But Olmert kept his decisions secret and left the initiative in the hands of Hassan Nasrallah.

From his statements during and after the war it emerged that Olmert saw in the soldiers' abduction and Israel's sharp response an opportunity for a comprehensive change in the rules of the game in Lebanon and for strengthening public support for his convergence plan. These are far-reaching goals and the attempt to achieve them has exacted a high price in dead and wounded, in property damage and in the call-up of the reserves.

Olmert did not tell the public to prepare for a confrontation with Hezbollah and he did not explain that a change in the situation in Lebanon is essential for Israeli interests. Lebanon was absent from his public statements before the war. The result was that the public was surprised, and after its initial support for the bombardment of Lebanon, it found that it did not understand what the fighting was about. When things got complicated the public turned its back on Olmert. To this day, it has also rejected the claim that Israel won the war.

Olmert's second failure is that he did not enlist the international community. If he really thought there would be an outbreak of war on the northern border, why didn't he make the seriousness of the situation clear to U.S. President George W. Bush, French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with whom he met in the weeks leading up to the war? Why didn't he tell them Hezbollah was about to abduct soldiers and was publicly threatening Israel and that if this happened Lebanon would be destroyed by IDF bombardments? Why didn't he tell them that if they wanted to rescue Lebanon, they should hasten to implement the UN Security Council resolutions and neutralize Hezbollah? Olmert did speak with Bush and Chirac about an agreement on the Shaba Farms, but did not give them a sense of alarm about a war at the gates.

An Israeli ultimatum could have achieved two results. Either Bush and Chirac would have mobilized the international community against Nasrallah or the two would have made it clear to Olmert that Lebanese infrastructures must not be on the air force's list of targets. In the second case, Olmert would have returned to Israel and asked the army for a list of alternative targets.

In the absence of a prior understanding, the American prohibition on harming the Siniora government and Lebanese infrastructures came only on the day the war broke out and after Olmert had already committed himself publicly to a "very painful" response. The result was that the IDF, which had prepared to destroy power stations and bridges in Lebanon, was left without targets and was dragged into a war on the ground in territory convenient to the enemy.

Olmert has changed his approach since the war. In recent months he has gradually been preparing domestic public opinion and the international community for a large military operation in the Gaza Strip and has been warning Syria about "miscalculation" that could lead to war. From this it is possible to understand that he realized he erred last summer. This, however, is not enough. It would be appropriate for the Winograd Committee to examine Olmert's functioning before the war and to establish rules for government responsibility in preventing future entanglements.