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Israeli Report Shows Failure At Highest Levels

By Pierre Atlas

Few countries subject themselves to government-commissioned, no-holds-barred introspection as does Israel. More countries--including the United States--should do so.

The Winograd Commission's 150-page Interim Report, which covers the first five days of last summer's Israel-Hezbollah war, was released to the public on April 30th. It is a political tsunami that may wipe out Israel's tottering coalition government and is already leaving disgraced leaders in its wake.

The report examines the initial period of what Israelis call "The Second Lebanon War," from Hezbollah's cross-border raid and capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006, to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's public declaration of war aims on July 17. The final report, to be released this summer, will cover the remainder of the 34-day war.

The war was a disaster for Israel, and even more so for Lebanon, its infrastructure and its civilian population. It was an accidental war, spurred by miscalculation and recklessness on both sides. But it is doubtful that Hezbollah (which instigated the conflict), or the Lebanese government (which failed to rein-in Hezbollah), will ever commission an independent inquiry to examine its own actions last summer.

But as the Winograd Report eloquently puts it, Israeli democracy demands a higher standard. "Israel must be a learning society--a society which examines its achievements and, in particular, its failures, in order to improve its ability to face the future." As the report demonstrates, the Israeli government failed massively and systemically last summer.

The report is a damning critique of Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and recently retired IDF Chief-of-Staff Dan Halutz. Olmert and Peretz, the leaders of Kadima and Labor, respectively, are Israel's first PM-DM leadership team to utterly lack any military experience. The Winograd report makes it clear that both men were incompetent leaders who sought to overcompensate for their military deficiencies by recklessly launching a war they didn't know how to fight. While they had to respond in some way to Hezbollah's unlawful seizure of the Israeli soldiers, they hastily chose all-out war when that option was neither necessary nor practical. And, said the commission, Gen. Halutz was more than happy to oblige them, disregarding IDF procedures and ignoring alternatives.

"In making the decision to go to war," the commission determined, "the government did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of 'containment,' or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below the 'escalation level,' or military preparations without immediate military action--so as to maintain for Israel the full range of responses to the abduction [of the soldiers by Hezbollah]. This failure reflects weakness in strategic thinking."

Certain adjectives come repeatedly to mind as one reads the Winograd Report: inexperience, recklessness, incompetence, poor judgment. Olmert, Peretz, and Halutz failed to exercise their basic fiduciary responsibilities as political and military leaders.

The Israeli government's decision-making process during the Second Lebanon War resembles what political scientist Irving Janis called "groupthink." Janis defined groupthink as "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action."

Janis developed the concept in his examination of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, and he argued that groupthink can produce disastrous consequences. Groupthink could be a partial explanation for the Olmert government's poor choices in July 2006.

The Winograd report is not Israel's first government-mandated review of decision-making in a time of crisis. Independent investigatory commissions led by respected former justices were set up to ask "what went wrong?" following two earlier military fiascos: Egypt's surprise attack on Yom Kippur, 1973, and the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian Lebanese militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps that were ostensibly under Israeli protection.

The Agranat Commission report sparked massive public demonstrations that forced the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1974, laying the groundwork for the collapse of Labor's longstanding hegemony and the rise to power of the Likud under Menachem Begin. The Kahan Commission's findings in 1983 forced the resignation of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and ultimately contributed to the collapse of Begin's government and his retirement from politics.

Winograd's impact will be as profound as its predecessors.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst and co-editor of bitterlemons.org, observes that "Judge Eliahu Winograd's description of Olmert's failings was simply devastating," noting that, "Winograd's choice of words exceeded the most extreme predictions of the politicians and the pundits."

Recognizing that this interim report deals "only with the backdrop and first five days of the war, during which Olmert looked relatively competent," Alpher predicts that the final report "will be yet more devastating because it will deal with the rest of the war during which Olmert's failings were more obvious."

One cannot help but see similarities between Judge Winograd's indictment of the Olmert government and the disastrous decisions of the Bush administration concerning Iraq. The recklessness, hubris, miscalculation, disingenuousness, and "groupthink" found in the behavior of the Israeli government last summer have been demonstrated tenfold by the Bush administration from late 2002 onward.

It is a poignant irony that Israel's forthright, government-mandated formal review was released on the eve of the fourth anniversary of President Bush's "mission accomplished" speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln. This only underscores the fact that America needs its own Winograd Commission.

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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