Olmert Forced to Explain Position to Knesset, Netanyahu Responds

Following the Winograd C'tee's critical interim report, PM Ehud Olmert was forced to explain his decision not to resign to the Knesset Tuesday.

Ezra HaLevi,

Following the Winograd Committee's scathing criticism of his performance in the Second Lebanon War, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was compelled to explain his decision not to resign to the Knesset Tuesday.

Olmert took the podium for the first time since the publication of the Winograd Committee’s interim report and explained why he believes he should remain prime minister, as well as his oft-repeated view that the results of Second Lebanon War were positive for Israel. The special session was held after a petition submitted by the Likud and Meretz parties was signed by 46 Knesset members.

The prime minister’s main claim was that whereas Hizbullah used to hold positions along the border, they are no longer there. "Two weeks ago, I visited the northern border, and at each spot I was shown the positions Hizbullah terrorists used to hold,” he said. "Residents who were once faced, every hour and every minute, with a Hizbullah man pointing his rifle at them – no longer face this situation." The Prime Minister also cited New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s assessment of the situation as proof of his successes.

Olmert focused on the question of whether the decision to go to war was a good one, rather than on the handling of the war once that decision was made. "I believed then as I believe now: that the decision to go to war was the necessary one under the circumstances," the PM explained. "It is true that the Lebanon war, like all wars to date, came at a high price. This is the part of the high price that the State of Israel has been paying for six decades for its desire to live in peace, security and independence."

The War’s Objectives
Olmert outlined the objectives he says guided the war effort. "The government I headed had goals when we went to war…[which were] the implementation of [UN] Resolution 1559 – the removal of Hizbullah, the deployment of the Lebanese army, a complete cease-fire and the return of the captives."

The prime minister explained that he knew from the start that recovering kidnapped IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev was not a sure-thing, "But that did not stop us taking daring steps to that end."

"We could not have expected the UN, in the Security Council’s decision, as well as the G-8 conference in Rome, to place the return of the captives at the top of their agenda had we not declared that they are at the top of ours," he said.

Everyone Supported Decisions at the Time
Olmert then lashed out at members of the government and opposition alike who have called for his resignation. "I brought all recommendations before the full Cabinet, which after it heard all the details voted unanimously and even approved an announcement defining the goals of Israel's response," he said. "I remember well the support given by [the Knesset] to the government's July 12 decision [to launch the offensive]. Then, you stood up one after the other and saluted the government's actions and its obligation to respond even given the knowledge that this strike would lead to strikes against the Israeli home front."

The PM referred specifically to opposition leader MK Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud), who "offered his full and unconditional support and told me that he would do the same thing."

Winograd Interim Findings Allow Gov’t to Rehabilitate
"The members of the Winograd Commission explained to me that they had submitted a partial report before completing their work because they saw the urgency of fixing the failures,” Olmert said of the committee he appointed to look into the war’s results. “Any sensible person understood that the committee was saying ‘yes’ to fixing the failures and ‘no’ to making heads roll. The government honored the committee's practical approach - rolled up its sleeves and began implementing. The IDF is in the midst of an unusual period of achievement, and we are closely following the implementation of the lessons."

Olmert summed up: "The overall responsibility lies first and foremost with the government that I head. I take full responsibility for the failures - but also for the great achievements…Those who really care about the implementation of the Winograd Commission report should read all of it, the good and the bad…The government I head will continue to lead the people of Israel to security, welfare, success, national reconciliation and, with G-d's help, also peace."

Netanyahu Responds
Former Prime Minister and Opposition Chief Binyamin Netanyahu took the podium following PM Olmert, saying that although he agreed with the decision to go to war, the way which it was carried out eroded Israel’s deterrence.

“[The Opposition] offered the government its full support to achieve the [stated] goals, but [the government] failed to do so," Netanyahu said, citing the failure to disarm Hizbullah and return the captives as two examples. "In my opinion, the greatest failure is that as a result of the war, Israel's deterrent capability has been severely harmed."

One Front Has Become Three
Netanyahu outlined the security situation today, tying it to the war’s results. "During the war we faced one front, now we face three fronts,” he said. “In Lebanon, Hizbullah has increased the weaponry it had before the war. In Gaza, there has been a change since the war transforming it into a second Lebanon – including tunnels and bunkers. The Philadelphi Corridor has become an expressway of weapons smuggling." Netanyahu also said war with Syria is much more likely due to Israel’s loss of deterrence.

Withdrawal Policies Led Here
Netanyahu rejected the government’s attempt to blame many of the failures on the IDF. "The loss of deterrence is not the army's problem, but first and foremost due to the weakness of the government’s policies,” he said, going on to blame all the prime minister’s who succeeded his term. “It started with [Ehud Barak’s] unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and the creation of an armed Iranian enclave, the Winograd report addresses this, and then continued with [Ariel Sharon’s] unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

“Before the Disengagement, intelligence estimated that over the course of a single year, one ton of explosives was smuggled into Gaza from Sinai. Two months after the Disengagement, that grew to six tons and the current estimate sets the amount of explosives brought into Gaza during 2006 at 30 tons."

The Government is the Problem
Addressing Olmert’s statements that the current government should be tasked with fixing the mistakes, Netanyahu said: "You say you can fix it? How can you fix it when you are the malfunction? Now you will use judgment? Now you have acquired the vast knowledge that you lacked? Now you will demonstrate the necessary care? What have you done in the past year? What have you done to stop the massive flow of arms to Hizbullah and Gaza? What have you done to reinforce [homes] in the Galilee? What have you done to provide Sderot with shelters? This was a wasted year. You did not learn any lessons because you are the lesson that must be learned."

Netanyahu raised his voice and said that the Winograd Committee’s entire report can be summarized in one statement: “The Government of Israel is shell shocked - and every day that passes with this government reduces Israel's deterrent capability and endangers its security. This government must go to the people. This government must go!"