What Happened After 3 A.M.?

The decision by Olmert and Peretz to approve an expansion of the campaign in Lebanon on the afternoon of August 11 merits a thorough discussion.

Aluf Benn reported this week in Haaretz that the prime minister emerged satisfied from his testimony before the Winograd Committee. Ehud Olmert believes that he succeeded in convincing the members of the committee of the justice of the last move of the war - those last 60 hours of battles during which the Israel Defense Forces tried in vain to reach the Litani River, battles that took place for the most part after the United Nations Security Council had already voted in favor of Resolution 1701, which in effect ended the war. Soldiers were killed during this very controversial operation, which was decided on by the prime minister and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Olmert, according to the article, believes that now the members of the committee think, as he does, that the decision was a "diplomatic imperative."

The Winograd Committee apparently has a special gift for calming those who appear before it. Quite a number of witnesses left its offices with feelings similar to those of Olmert.

Those who served in official positions during the period preceding the war had the impression that the five members of the committee accepted the considerations that lay behind the policy of restraint on the northern border and the cutbacks in the IDF units and in their training exercises. And there are others, who served in central roles during the period of the war itself, who are certain that the committee understands full well that had it not been for the impossible situation they inherited from their predecessors, the fighting against Hezbollah could have ended with more positive results.

The good atmosphere in the committee discussions is encouraging. Maybe that's the way to arrive at the truth.

On the other hand, the leaks from the past week (which apparently originated in the political leadership and not the committee itself), to the effect that the Winograd Committee will make do with general, "systemic" statements, rather than aspire to point fingers at those responsible for the failure in Lebanon, are more disturbing.

The decision by Olmert and Peretz to approve an expansion of the campaign on the afternoon of August 11 merits a thorough discussion.

The two explained it with two main arguments, one diplomatic and one military. The diplomatic argument: Only thanks to the advance of the IDF troops was the draft version of the UN resolution changed substantially in favor of Israel. The military argument: The forces were supposed to seize more forward positions, in case the cease-fire would not go into effect on August 14. And because the order to advance was given just hours before the UN vote, it would have been impossible in any case to stop the movement of divisions.

The existence of a substantial difference between the draft and final version approved in the UN is controversial. But even if we accept the diplomatic argument presented by Olmert and Peretz, it is hard to agree with the military one. The Security Council voted at 3 A.M. Israel time. The heavy exchanges of fire began only a few hours later. There apparently was still enough time to stop the forces. We're not talking here about dozens of tanks that lost their brakes on the descent to the Saluki River.

The military campaign and the manner in which it was approved, bring up many other questions: Why, for instance, were the Saluki and Litani rivers chosen as targets when maps showed that a substantial percentage of Katyushas launched in previous days came from Nabatiyeh Heights (north of the Litani) or from the area that the IDF had already held.

Was there not here, first and foremost, an attempt to find a "winning picture" for the war? And how did Olmert, in spite of his support for the limited ground operation suggested by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, approve the larger and more ambitious plan of the army?

In the High Court of Justice the petition to publish the minutes of the Winograd proceedings in full is still pending. The prime minister testified before the committee for six hours. He presumably had a lot to explain: The decision to give the defense portfolio to Peretz, going to war, rejecting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's pleas to use diplomatic means to end the war shortly after it broke.

The prime minister is a skilled and experienced attorney. From the Churchillian speech he delivered in the Knesset on July 17 ("no more") we learned that he is a gifted speaker as well.

But in order to emerge successfully from Winograd, Olmert apparently needs more than that. He has to be a magician.