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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Olmert: you will never wipe off that yellow stain

When I think of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and celebration of the final Winograd report, the last line of the move, The Caine Mutiny comes to mind "You can wipe the rest of your life Mister, you will never wipe off that yellow stain"

The "silly-haired" Prime Minister might have escaped the absolute wrath of the commission, but the fact remains that it was the plans that the IDF implemented were based on his tentative direction. He ordered a tepid entry into Lebanon, the same way he orders tepid responses into Gaza. The failure of the Second Lebanon War is Olmert's failure.

The Winograd Report - a year-and-a-half's work by five high-powered and intelligent Israelis - had the entire Israeli public waiting with bated breath. The report's hundreds of pages can be perused and studied and interpreted, and will, no doubt, be argued about in the months and years to come. And yet, three words would have sufficed: We were defeated. That is the whole story. Everything else is redundant. Israel, with the strongest army in the Middle East, regardless of the shortcomings revealed during the war, was defeated by two thousand Hezbollah fighters in a war that lasted 34 days.

And that was known to most of the Israeli public a year-and-a-half ago, before the Winograd Commission began its work. And it was confirmed by the Winograd Commission when it released its partial report last year. Nothing else was really needed, despite the spin doctors in the Prime Minister's Office who kept insisting that the war had been a great strategic achievement for Israel.

The intervening year, since the publication of the partial report, which aroused mountains of speculation and anticipation regarding the final report's contents, only helped to obfuscate the sad truth that Israel had been led for the first time in its history to a military defeat in a war.

So who was responsible for this fiasco? Did we need the Winograd Commission for the answer to this question? Did we really need their long-winded explanations about the responsibility of the political echelon, and the military echelon, and the interface between them?

Is it not clear that in a democracy the elected leader carries the ultimate responsibility for failure. "The buck stops here" President Harry Truman said, pointing at his desk in the Oval Office. Not with the generals, bureaucrats, or advisors. He was responsible. And in Israel, it is the prime minister who is responsible. Others may have to carry their share of the responsibility, but the ultimate responsibility is his.

Olmert knew when he assumed the office of prime minister that the responsibility for the fate of the State of Israel now rested on his shoulders. That this was not just another job, and the Prime Minister's Office was far more than just a place of work. He would need good cabinet ministers, and good advisors, and he knew that he would have to listen to the opinions of the military brass, and then solicit the opinions of others who had amassed the relevant experience, but when all was said and done the decision would be his, and the responsibility would be his. That is what it means to be prime minister. The buck stops here.

Did Olmert, with so many years of political experience behind him, having held so many positions in government, know this? Of course he did. And he called the shots. On July 20, 2006, the ninth day of the war that he launched, he said to then chief of staff Dan Halutz: "So I tell you, to provide you with direction, if it [a proposal to launch a large-scale ground operation] should come up with the generals, or in one of the forums that decides on steps to be taken - I will not approve a large ground operation." And that sealed the fate of this unfortunate war.

How did this mindset, so obviously wrong, come to dominate Israel's strategy in the Second Lebanon War? It was the unfortunate symbiosis between Olmert's determination not get stuck in the "Lebanese quagmire," and the chief of staff's idee fixe that the Air Force was all-powerful. According to Halutz, there was no need to put boots on the ground, which was music to Olmert's ears. That was exactly what Olmert, who only a few years earlier had declared that "we are tired of fighting, and tired of defeating our enemies," wanted to hear.

Olmert's staff may continue to raise their champagne glasses, and spout nonsense about their determination to study the report and correct all the failings listed, and that all and sundry should apologize to Olmert now that he has been cleared by the Winograd Commission, but nothing can remove the responsibility he carries on his shoulders for the fiasco of the Second Lebanon War. The historical record will show it for years to come.

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