Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Winograd Commission that his decision to respond to the abduction of soldiers with a broad military operation was made as early as March 2006, four months before last summer's Lebanon war broke out.
The commission, which is investigating the second Lebanon war, is expected to issue its interim report this month. It has sent testimony to attorneys representing individuals who could be harmed by its conclusions.
Olmert testified before the Winograd Commission on February 1, and its questions focused on three basic issues: the circumstances surrounding Amir Peretz's appointment as defense minister; how and why the decision was made to go to war on July 12, several hours after reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted by Hezbollah guerrillas on the northern border; and why Olmert decided to carry out a large-scale ground operation in Lebanon, 48 hours before the cease-fire, in which 33 soldiers were killed.
In his testimony, Olmert claimed he had held more meetings on the situation in Lebanon than any of his recent predecessors. The first meeting was held on January 8, 2006, four days after Olmert was called to take the place of Ariel Sharon, who had fallen into a coma.
Further meetings were held in March, April, May and July, after Corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted to the Gaza Strip.
The day before he appeared before the commission, Major General Gadi Shamni, Olmert's military secretary, presented its members with the schedule of the meetings on Lebanon.
The scenario presented in the various assessments reflected prior incidents: the abduction of soldiers from Israeli territory accompanied by heavy cross-border shelling. Then-chief of staff Dan Halutz said such an incident would have far-reaching consequences for Israel's deterrent capability. Halutz said Israel could not show restraint in the face of a kidnapping in the north, and it had to respond. Olmert testified that he accepted this stance.
In a meeting in March, Olmert asked the army commanders whether operational plans existed for such a possibility, and they said yes. He asked to see the plans, and they asked why. He responded that he did not want to make a snap decision in the case of an abduction, and preferred to decide at that moment. Presented with the options, he selected a moderate plan that included air attacks accompanied by a limited ground operation. At the time, Shaul Mofaz was defense minister.
The Winograd Commission asked Olmert what he thought his predecessor would have done. Olmert said that following Hezbollah's failed November 2005 attempt to abduct Israel Defense Forces troops in the border village of Ghajar, Sharon ordered the army to prepare a "list of targets" for a military response in Lebanon. The list included an air attack on the long-range Fajr and Zilzal rockets, which were destroyed in an air raid the first night of the war. Sharon said at the time that the status quo, of ongoing Hezbollah raids, could not continue. Olmert told the commission that he behaved as Sharon would have.
Olmert stated that he had decided in earlier meetings that Israel's goal in an operation would be the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the deployment of the Lebanese army along the Israeli border and the disarmament of Hezbollah.
In May 2006, Olmert was informed by then-National Security Council head Giora Eiland and former prime minister Ehud Barak that the Lebanese government would agree to implement Resolution 1559 in return for an Israeli withdrawal from Shaba Farms. Olmert thought that it was best to implement the decision through diplomacy, and raised the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.
During deliberations last June, following Shalit's abduction, Olmert told the committee he was certain there would be a similar attempt to kidnap soldiers on the Lebanese border. He ordered the IDF to prevent this.
Regarding the decision to broaden the ground operation toward the end of the war, Olmert said he had wanted to influence UN Security Council deliberations so that the draft resolution 1701, calling for a cease-fire, would be amended in Israel's favor.
Olmert said that the morning he made the move, he had received a draft reflecting the French-Lebanese stance, which did not suit Israel. The expanded operation was aimed at pressuring the Security Council members, he said.
Commission member Ruth Gavison interrupted Olmert at that point, saying that while she had no doubt that the final operation was very successful, she wanted to know why it had not been carried out earlier.
Olmert said that had earlier Israeli ground offensives been successful, Israel would not have been in such a situation at the end of the war.
Based on Gavison's statement, Olmert concluded his testimony feeling he had convinced the commission that he made the correct decision in calling for the final ground operation.
He told his aides that he emerged from the deposition exhausted but felt the committee had accepted his view.
The Winograd Commission also asked Olmert whether appointing Peretz as defense minister was the right thing to do. He responded that the defense portfolio had been given to Labor under coalition talks, and the party chose its ministers.
Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, gave the Winograd Commission the diplomatic exchanges that occured during the war.
He said that as early as the first day of the war, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Olmert and asked that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora not be undermined. Israel understood this to mean that Lebanese infrastructure should not be destroyed, even though the IDF had originally planned otherwise.
Dov Weissglas, adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon, explained Sharon's containment policy along the border with Lebanon, which was intended to prevent a two-front confrontation with the Palestinians and Hezbollah.
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