Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak has decided to stay in the Olmert government, reneging on a campaign promise he made during Labor's primary elections last year and outraging fellow Labor Knesset Members.
Barak, who heads the second-largest party in the coalition, made the announcement Sunday morning, thereby securing the continued existence of the Olmert government in the wake of the Winograd report. The interim and final reports of the Winograd Commission, released in April 2007 and January 2008, harshly criticized the prime minister, holding him personally responsible for the many errors in judgment and flawed decisions made by the government during the Second Lebanon War.
Speaking at a news conference June 6, 2007, one week prior to the party's runoff primary that led to his election as Labor chairman, Barak told reporters, "The Winograd Report is a tough report, requiring personal conclusions. Olmert must come to his own personal conclusions and resign, as did Dan Halutz and Amir Peretz, in their way." Barak added that "if Olmert does not quit before the release of the final report, we [Labor] will be forced to end our cooperation with Olmert, and work to create a new coalition within the current government, or alternatively, we'll work toward setting a date for elections."
Barak appeared at the news conference together with fellow Labor Knesset member Ophir Pines-Paz, who announced he would back Barak's candidacy but had also made it clear his support was conditional on Barak's position vis a vis the Winograd Report.
Labor Party members slammed Barak's decision to renege on his promise to end the party's participation in the Olmert government, warning the party could lose grassroots popularity by supporting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the wake of the Winograd Report.
Had Barak kept his vow to pull his 19-seat party out the coalition if Olmert did not resign or call new elections after the release of the report, the government would have collapsed. Olmert would have then been forced either to build a new coalition or call new elections.
MK Shelly Yechimovitch (Labor) said she is "sorry" about the decision, and said Barak's decision would have negative repercussions on the Labor Party. Party Secretary Eitan Cabel said Barak squandered a chance to show leadership. "I'm sorry to say he failed to do that. The Labor Party may well suffer badly for that decision."
Another Labor Knesset Member, Danny Yatom, slammed Barak and Olmert together, saying he was "disappointed" that Barak failed to force Olmert to "make a decision." "In any normal, moral country, Olmert would have resigned in light of the report, or the Labor Party would have created a situation where he would have been forced to do so," said Yatom.
In an editorial published in the Yisrael HaYom commuter newspaper, writer Gonen Ginat said the commission cited more than 150 instances in which Olmert failed in his handling of the war. Ginat also noted that Justice Eliyahu Winograd (ret.) said in his statement last Wednesday following release of the final report, "We stand behind all that we wrote in the partial [interim] report, and the two reports should be seen as complementing each other."
Then-Defense Minister and Labor Party head Amir Peretz also was severely criticized in the commission’s interim report, as was former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who later resigned. Peretz was ousted as chairman by his own party in primary elections for the chairmanship three months later, losing his position as Defense Minister as well. Ehud Barak was elected on the strength of his promise to pull out of the coalition if Olmert didn’t step down following release of the full report.
The final Winograd Report released last week largely skirted the issue of the prime minister’s culpability in the failure of Israel to conclusively win the war against Hizbullah terrorists in Lebanon and generally avoided naming names in assigning blame for the outcome of the conflict.
The members of the Winograd commission were hand-picked by Olmert himself, who thus also avoided establishment of a more authorative state commission of inquiry to investigate the government’s management of the war. A state commission would have been an independent entity with the authority to subpoena witnesses and later use the testimony in subsequent court action.