Olmert’s legacy could yet be the failure that forces something better

LET’S hope Lords Hutton and Butler were taking notes. An 81-year-old retired judge, Eliyahu Winograd, has just given a masterclass in how to conduct a genuine, fearless and plainspoken inquiry into a government failure.

By Jonathan Freedland

Published: Thu 3 May 2007, 8:16 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:23 AM

While our own inquisitors into aspects of the Iraq war retreated either into whitewash (Hutton) or polite circumlocution (Butler), Winograd delivered it straight, and right between the eyes. Asked by the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to probe the country’s "second Lebanon war" last summer, he issued an interim verdict on Monday which required no translation from the mandarin code of euphemism. Olmert was, said the judge, guilty of "a severe failure" of judgment, rushing into a "hasty" war with no clear plan, setting "overambitious and unobtainable goals". Others were at fault but, as prime minister, Olmert bore "supreme responsibility". Short of handing the PM a revolver, Winograd could not have been harsher.

Israel is shaking from the shock of it, but it should also allow itself a pang of pride in the Winograd process. Handpicked by Olmert himself, this government inquiry was assumed to lack the independence of a state probe staffed by supreme court judges. But Winograd and his team were nobody’s patsies: instead they dared to speak uncomfortable truth to arrogant power. Israel’s boast that it is the only democracy in the Middle East is often met with a snort. But this exercise has shown that - at least within its own borders — Israel is capable of a democratic accountability entirely absent in its region. Imagine for a moment a panel of Syrian wise men or Egyptian elders delivering a similar message to Bashar Assad or Hosni Mubarak. They could expect to receive not plaudits, as Winograd has, but at best a lengthy spell in prison.

That, and the possibility that the Winograd report will shock the Israeli political and military establishment, even Israeli society itself, into a desperately needed shakeup is the crumb of comfort. Otherwise, it is a grim moment for the country. The report lays into the incompetence and hubris of the men at the top, the decay that has been allowed to eat away at the Israel Defence Forces, even the individualistic hedonism of a nation that once placed a great premium on collective solidarity. Not since the Agranat report into the 1973 war has there been such a comprehensive indictment. According to Yediot Ahronoth columnist Sima Kadmon, "The entire system screwed up."

This round of self-flagellation was not prompted by concern that the 2006 pounding of Lebanon was "disproportionate", to recall the word of that hour. Israelis still believe they had every right to take on Hezbollah, who had abducted two Israeli soldiers from Israeli soil and had thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilian towns.

The criticism is not that Olmert fought the war but that he fought it badly. That he didn’t achieve his stated aims of freeing the soldiers and de-fanging Hezbollah; that he sent troops in harm’s way with no coherent plan and insufficient protection; and that a non-victory against a mere guerrilla movement has shattered the IDF aura of invincibility essential to deter Israel’s enemies. It’s for that series of failures that he has been slammed.

As a result, Olmert is a dead man walking. An instant poll for Israel’s Channel 10 sought to discover how many people would vote for Olmert if elections were held today. The answer was zero per cent, surely a political first in any country at any time. Thirty three years ago, the Agranat commission drove Golda Meir from office and Winograd seems set to do the same to Olmert — if not now, then with his final report this summer.

What could save him? The answer might just be his old rival, Bibi Netanyahu. Antipathy to Bibi is the glue which currently binds Olmert’s coalition together: the different parties fear that if they bring down the government and trigger elections, they will only lose seats — and let Netanyahu win. That fear could allow Olmert to cling on.

But not for long. At the end of this month, Labour, the main partner of Olmert’s Kadima party, will choose a new leader. Already the frontrunner, former intelligence chief Ami Ayalon, has called for Olmert to quit and promised to withdraw Labour from the coalition if he does not. His rival for the leadership, former prime minister Ehud Barak, may feel obliged to follow suit.

That would leave Kadima with little choice but to topple Olmert, replacing him with a new leader who might keep the government together without fresh elections. Frantic plotting is already under way, with foreign minister Tzipi Livni the name in the frame. "She won’t wield the knife, she won’t be Brutus," one ally told me last night, safe in the knowledge that she won’t have to. (If Olmert is pushed, that will leave the government temporarily headed by Kadima’s acting leader, none other than the Methuselah of Israeli politics, Shimon Peres, returning to the prime minister’s office on the eve of his 84th birthday.)

It adds up to a turbulent time for Israel, a period in which almost the entire political class is besieged by accusations of corruption or incompetence. The optimists hope that this is the crisis that precedes regeneration: one government insider yesterday cited Italy and Ireland as examples of societies that had come through similar transformations. But no one is under any illusion that the current paralysis is simply an internal problem. What happens in Israel affects its neighbours, with the Palestinians first in line.

The sunniest view would have Olmert making a diplomatic move, if only to give some meaning to his remaining in office. In recent weeks he has had long, one-on-one talks with leading peaceniks, including the acclaimed writer Amos Oz. And he has spoken positively of the Arab League initiative, renewed in Riyadh in March, which offers Israel full normalisation with the Arab world in return for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Such a tactic would have a precedent. When Ariel Sharon was mired in corruption scandals in late 2003, he too tacked leftward, by announcing the pullout from Gaza.

The more pessimistic outlook sees the Israeli authorities mirroring the Palestinians, who have themselves cobbled together a coalition unable to conceal their deep, underlying disagreement over the way ahead. On one side stands an Israel which, as Hussein Agha and Robert Malley write in the current edition of the New York Review of Books, cannot decide "whether to respond to Syria’s peace overtures or to spurn them, whether to deal with [Palestinian president] Abbas or to forget him". On the other stands a Palestinian unity government repressing a civil war between Fatah and Hamas. This is the current tragedy of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, to be led by those too paralysed to lead.

And yet, a middle, hopeful thought is possible. Perhaps the current Israeli upheaval will force a realignment, not immediately, but in an election 12 or 18 months from now. The central question of that contest could be: how should Israel respond to the Arab initiative? After all, as Olmert himself once said, Israelis are tired of fighting. And because all the other methods, including both bilateral talks with the Palestinians and the policy of unilateral territorial withdrawals on which he was elected, have failed. That, then, may be Olmert’s legacy, to bequeath the failure that forces something better.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

More news from OPINION