Will Olmert Survive?

After Israel’s inability last summer to achieve a conclusive victory over Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, public pressure forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government to appoint a commission to examine the causes of this surprising failure. How could a small militia, numbering less than a few thousand combatants, survive the onslaught of the Middle East’s most formidable military machine?

The commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Eliyahu Winograd, has just published its interim report. Its criticism of Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Chief-of-Staff Dan Halutz – set forth in a detailed and meticulous 117-page assessment – is harsh, but not surprising. The Winograd Commission articulated what most Israelis already think: Olmert and Peretz lacked the military, security, and policy experience to confront a terrorist organization that raided Israeli territory, killed a number of soldiers and kidnapped two, and then launched thousands of rockets on civilian targets for over a month.

Indeed, the inexperience of the prime minister and the defense minister are unprecedented in Israel’s history. Olmert, who stepped into Ariel Sharon’s shoes as leader of the new Kadima Party, was considered a competent but lackluster parliamentarian – and later mayor of Jerusalem – who was known more for his polemical style than for his political stature or gravitas.

For most Israelis, even those who voted for him as the bearer of Sharon’s legacy after the Gaza disengagement, Olmert thus remained the accidental prime minister. Likewise, Peretz, a rabble-rousing but effective trade unionist, surprised all when he won the Labor Party’s leadership primary and then chose the defense portfolio over the treasury.