Israel Update for September 2006

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The Kadima party leader himself did not immediately answer the grave charges against him, which are expected to be among many questions looked into by a special war investigation committee that was approved by the cabinet on September 17th. The committee, headed by retired High Court justice Eliyahu Winograd, was empowered to examine the government's conduct of the war. However the panel's establishment was deemed insufficient by many Israeli politicians and commentators, including opposition leader Netanyahu, who called instead for the setting up of an official state commission of enquiry which would have broader legal powers than the Olmert committee.


Retired politician Moshe Arens, who served as defense minister three times beginning in 1983, was among several other current and former legislators who called for Ehud Olmert's immediate resignation. The veteran Likud party official told Israel Radio that the recent war had been "an unprecedented defeat for Israel." This grave assessment was later echoed by chief IDF education officer Ilan Harari, who became the most senior army leader to publicly state what many top commanders were reportedly saying off the record-that Israel had lost the war.

Noting that various Syrian government leaders, including Baathist dictator Bashar Assad, are now publicly threatening to take back the strategic Golan Heights by force, Arens said urgent steps must be taken to strengthen Israel's defenses. "We cannot afford to wait for round two before we move to correct our mistake," he said.

Equally strong words were employed against the embattled Premier by another longtime Likud party colleague, retired Knesset member Uzi Landau. The former Internal Security minister, who served in the first Sharon government, is currently a senior research fellow at the prestigious IDC Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya. He averred that Olmert "lacks the courage and historic wisdom needed to guide Israel in this treacherous region and difficult time."

In a scathing opinion article written for the Jerusalem Post, Landau said Olmert's biggest mistake was not going to war against Syria, who he noted was the main weapons supplier and political enabler for the Lebanese Hizbullah militia.

Landau recalled that the United States had found itself in a major crisis when the Soviet Union placed threatening surface to surface missiles on Fidel Castro's neighboring island nation of Cuba in 1962. Then President John F. Kennedy successfully rebuffed the Communist giant, forcing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down and withdraw the missiles. "In comparison, our Lebanese 'missile crisis' ended with a victory for the Axis of Evil," wrote Landau. "If only Olmert had learned from Kennedy to threaten the messenger" (Hizbullah) "but place the onus on-and act mainly against-the actor actually calling the shots" (Syria).

The veteran Likud politician predicted that another round of fighting would soon break out in the north, adding that this time "Israel must view any act of aggression on the part of Hizbullah as an act of aggression emanating from Syria." He added that Israel "must be willing to go to war to prevent further rocket and missile attacks against our population centers. But what we need most is the kind of courageous, wise and determined leadership provided by a Jack Kennedy."

The Israeli public apparently overwhelmingly agrees with Landau's negative critique of the sitting PM. An opinion poll published in Haaretz on September 22nd showed Olmert's approval rating had plummeted to just 22% from 48% when the war ended. Defense Minister Peretz suffered an even bigger drop, with just 14% endorsing the way he is handling his strategic job.

Subcommittee Blasts Government

Adding to PM Olmert's woes, a Knesset report also poured cold water on the government's handling of the intense mid-summer conflict, this time pointing a finger at the home front. The report was issued by a special Knesset subcommittee established out of the larger Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The subcommittee was chaired by Labor's Ami Ayalon, an acknowledged security expert who was appointed Shin Bet chief in the wake of the traumatic Yitzhak Rabin assassination in 1995.

The Knesset panel rebuked the government for "failing to adequately protect the citizens of northern Israel" during the conflict. It said the Kadima-led coalition, established only last April, had "failed to comprehend that Israel was facing a new security situation," an apparent reference to Hizbullah's massive Syrian and Iranian-supplied rocket arsenal.

Comprised of members of several Knesset political parties, including Kadima, the subcommittee noted that "no formal government meeting had even been convened" to discuss the possible evacuation of the over one million northern residents who came under daily rocket attack during the 34 day conflict, which featured the heaviest sustained bombardment upon civilian centers anywhere on earth since World War II. Recalling that 43 people had been killed in the blitz, seven of them children, the report also warned that massive enemy missile strikes upon Israeli civilian communities is likely to feature prominently in future wars.

Subcommittee chairman Ayalon had earlier criticized PM Olmert and DM Peretz for "mishandling" the war, along with Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. He called upon Peretz to "own up" to his failures and resign his position as defense minister. The call, which followed the sudden September 12th resignation of the IDF's Northern Commander, General Udi Adam-who had sparred with Halutz during the conflict-was supported by many other Knesset politicians and editorial writers. It also came after the release of several opinion polls showing that most Israelis wanted someone with substantial military and security experience to assume the sensitive post in place of Peretz.