Fighting a war is messy and unsatisfying. Figuring out what went wrong is also likely to be messy and unsatisfying.
Widespread is the feeling that Israel's military did not perform well enough in what is being called Lebanon 2. Also problematic was the performance of military and civilian personnel with responsibility for the home front. Residents of the northern region suffered more than a month of bombardment without well planned or executed efforts to evacuate them to safe areas, and to care for the basic needs of those who remained.
What to do now that it is over, or least while there is a pause until the next round of fighting?
There are two principal options available in Israeli law and practice. One is a Commission of Inquiry authorized by the government, whose members are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, chaired by a justice, and with wide ranging powers of inquiry. Another is a Committee also authorized by the government, but with members, a focus, and powers defined by the government.
The first option has the advantage of being selected by a distinguished figure who is not himself the target of inquiry. Its disadvantage is that its focus is likely to be legalistic (i.e., to what extent participants followed the rules). Past practice is that such an inquiry will take a while, perhaps a year or longer, and will cause the people being investigated to spend the time with their lawyers, defending themselves, and perhaps accusing others. In the present setting, the greatest danger is that such an inquiry will work against the changes necessary in the military.
The second option of a committee appointed by the government is likely to be quicker, more substantive in its focus than legalistic, with a greater concern to find problems and suggest how they might be fixed, rather than assign blame. The prime disadvantage is that it is appointed by the officials who are among the targets of the inquiry. It may have limited powers of inquiry. It is subject to the charge that it will produce the solutions desired by those who appointed it, and whitewashing the politicians who had a role in the problems being investigated.
The context for the present choice includes several groups of reservists who came home and set up protest organizations, along with a good government movement that has jumped on a bandwagon that looks promising. So far these noise-makers have not trigged a mass movement. A number of them insist on the instant resignation of prime minister, defense minister, and the highest ranking general. There is a smell of soldiers coming back from the battlefield and wanting to change the government. So far no sergeant or colonel has emerged to offer himself as the next national leader, and that is not likely here. If there is something that unites these movements, as well as opposition members of the Knesset, is a demand for a Commission of Inquiry appointed by the chief justice, capable of criticizing ranking politicians and military people, and deciding that some or all must resign.
As soon as the fighting ended, the defense minister established a committee to investigate the military, but not himself. He selected as its chairman a former military commander who was one of his advisors during the war. The criticism of this effort was widespread, and the committee disbanded itself after about 36 hours.
Now the prime minister has offered a cadre of committees, with distinguished figures to investigate the military, and the government. He is asking the State Comptroller to investigate the care of the home front. This is a more impressive assemblage than that chosen by the defense minister; its mandate is wider; and the prime minister can produce a majority in the cabinet to approve his selections.
The prime minister would be on sturdier ground if he had not announced his program12 hours after being named in a State Comptroller's report for a transparent kind of political patronage, perhaps involving criminal offense, during a previous incarnation when he was minister of trade and industry. This was not the first time that a State Comptroller had targeted Ehud Olmert for impropriety. Also in his background is a lead article in Ha'aretz weekend magazine during the recent election campaign. It spread over 12 pages, was headlined, "Prime Minister of Lack of Evidence," and detailed numerous cases where Olmert was accused and investigated, but ended with no charges brought, the case closed, or dismissed for lack of evidence. The article described Olmert's "friends" among individuals on the fringes of politics, business, law, and organized crime.
After the election, it was not thought wise, and in retrospect even less wise, for Olmert to appoint Amir Peretz as defense minister. Peretz had no significant military expertise, and Israel was not in a period of peace when the army's principal task was parading and polishing its equipment. But naming Peretz as defense minister was politically convenient. The appointment added to the impression that Olmert's skill is playing according to what is politically convenient, close to but perhaps not over the boundaries of the improper.
Olmert and Peretz, and Dan Halutz, the chief of the general staff, did not produce a disaster in this war. They brought the fighting to Hezbollah, ended it with a relatively small number of Israeli casualties, and produced enough damage in Lebanon and among Hezbollah as to bring that organization to a point of significant weakness. Somewhat out of the media spotlight, they have been managing a severe response to Hamas and other violent organizations in Gaza and the West Bank. In recent days, leading figures of both Hezbollah and Hamas have articulated something other than dramatic proclamations of victory. They note that they erred in their most recent attacks on Israel, and that Israel's response rendered their own aggression not worthwhile ways of attaining their objectives.
There are, and will be loud squawks among those who want Israeli heads to roll. The less than heroic victory, and a number of detailed problems apparent in the management of the fighting and the defense of the home front provide attractive causes of protest. Among the problems was a dithering of what to do, militarily. It seems to have been associated with the lack of military experience of both the prime minister and the defense minister. One hears convincing criticism that they did not ask the right questions, or decide clearly when they were getting different recommendations from military and intelligence sources.
One of the committees now appointed seems likely to propose a beefed up national security staff, to help the government decide in the face of uncertainty.
This sounds like a good idea, but it hides an irony. Thirty years ago the inquiry after the Yom Kippur War decided that the government had been misled by too much unity in sources of intelligence. Better to have multiple organizations, each capable of reaching its own recommendations. Now we may get another organ to help the government deal with ambiguities coming from separate sources of advice. This will add to the decision time, and will be unlikely to produce clarity in situations that seem destined to be unclear and uncertain. It seems better to recognize the ambiguities and ambivalences that come from the grey area of military intelligence, and to assure that either the prime minister or the defense minister has enough professional experience to probe the sources, ask appropriate questions, and make choices in the time frames required by circumstances.
The clock is ticking. Some commentators count the votes in the cabinet in favor of Olmert's committees, and say that it is a done deal. Others say that it is crafted to protect Olmert and other key players, and will not survive the criticism.