From Stalingrad to Winograd

By Uri Avnery

For some days, the country looked like the Place de la Concorde in 1793. The entire public sat expectantly facing the guillotine, waiting for the tumbril to bring the marquis, for the marquis to lie down, for the blade to fall on his neck and for a soldier to hold up the bloody, severed head for the amusement of the spectators.

All eyes were fixed on the raised blade of the Winograd commission. The judge sat down before the cameras and read out the report. But the blade did not come down. No reserve soldier raised the bloody, severed head. The head remained in its place. Ehud Olmert is no marquis, and his head remains firmly on his shoulders.

From one end of the country to the other, a deep sigh of disappointment. The reporters and commentators sprang from their seats, like the knitting hags of the Paris square whose marquis has escaped.

The Winograd commission has failed, the commentators exclaimed in outrage. To the many failures of the war, the failure of the commission must now be added.

Every experienced politician knows the axiom: He who chooses the members of a commission determines its conclusions in advance.

That is almost self-evident. After all, the members of the commission are only human. Human beings have attitudes and opinions. These are known in advance to the person who appoints them. He can appoint the members at will. If he appoints tycoons, he can reasonably expect that they will not decide to raise the taxes on the rich. If he appoints leftists instead, the recommendations will be quite different.

Therefore, when the proposed Law of Commissions of Inquiry was debated, we decided that the members of an "official" commission of inquiry should not be appointed by the government, but by the President of the Supreme Court. I was a member of the Knesset at the time and took an active part in the debate. I proposed that not only would the Chief Justice appoint the commission members, but that he – and not the government – would decide on the setting up of an inquiry in the first place. (This was rejected.)
That happened seven years before the young Ehud Olmert was first elected to the Knesset. But he understands the law perfectly. When, after Lebanon War II, the appointment of an "official" commission of inquiry was proposed, he objected strenuously. He insisted on a government-appointed inquiry commission. While the members of an official commission are appointed by the Chief Justice, the members of a government commission are appointed by the government itself.

The appointment of the Winograd commission was greeted by many doubts. But these evaporated completely when the interim report was released last April. It was harsh and uncompromising. It contained very negative remarks about Olmert.

So the public relaxed. The difference between the two kinds of commission was forgotten. The Winograd commission behaved exactly like an "official" commission, took decisions like one and spoke like one. It raised the guillotine blade, and everybody waited for it to fall on Olmert’s neck.

And then it became clear that "la petite difference" was a very substantial difference indeed. The commission appointed by Olmert has now issued a final report that is favorable to Olmert all along the line, especially about the accusation that Olmert had decided on the last-minute "ground operation" and sent soldiers to their deaths to save his personal prestige.

The commission did not lay any personal blame on any politician or general. Here it could base itself on a decision of the Supreme Court, which had expressly forbidden the commission to condemn anyone personally.

How come? When the Knesset adopted the Commission of Inquiry Law, we paid much attention to Article 15. It prohibits condemning anyone without giving them a fair opportunity to defend themself. Such a person must be warned in advance and invited to appoint a lawyer, to cross-examine witnesses and to summon witnesses of their own.

That is a long process, and a commission of inquiry is generally in a hurry to finish its report before the subject of its investigation is forgotten. For example, the commission of inquiry that was set up after the Yom Kippur war, under Judge Agranat, just disregarded the article altogether and decided to dismiss the Chief of Staff, the Commander of the Southern Front and other generals, without giving them any advance warning at all.

The Winograd commission took another path: when the army authorities petitioned the Supreme Court and demanded that the commission respect Article 15, the commission just promised that they would not blame anybody personally.

The commission could, of course, have described Olmert’s part in the war in such scathing terms as to force him to resign. It did not do so. On the contrary, it concluded that his decisions were reasonable.

The blade did not fall, Olmert was bruised, but still standing.

After the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, the "official" commission of inquiry chaired by Judge Kahan published an exemplary report which exposed all the facts. But these could have led it to much harsher conclusions than it did actually reach. Instead of finding that Ariel Sharon and his minions were guilty of "indirect responsibility" for the massacre, it could have decided that they bore direct responsibility. The facts supported such a conclusion. Why did they not do so, and only dismissed Sharon and some officers? I assume that they shrunk back for fear of causing severe damage to the State of Israel.

Now I could write much the same about the Winograd commission. The facts exposed by it justify more extreme conclusions. What held them back? One can guess: the five commission members, all pillars of the establishment – 2 generals, 2 leading academics, 1 judge – did not want to topple Olmert, the No. 1 establishment person. Perhaps they feared that his place would be taken by somebody much worse – a worry shared by many others in the country.

As prominent establishment figures, the commission members also shrunk back from touching on two basic questions concerning Lebanon War II: (a) Why it was started at all, and (b) What had caused the shocking deterioration of the army.

In its two reports, the commission asserted that the decision to start the war was taken in a hasty and irresponsible manner. The stated war aims were quite unattainable. But the commission did not say what had caused Olmert & Co. – the government of Israel – to make such a decision.

We now know for sure that plans for the war had been prepared a long time before. These were rehearsed only a month before the war and changes were made according to the results. In the end, these plans were not implemented at all. But it is clear that the government and the army had long been thinking about attacking Hezbollah.

For six years, the Northern border had been completely quiet. Hezbollah did deploy rockets (as it is doing now) but showed then (as now) no inclination to attack Israel.

The cross-border incursion in which two Israeli soldiers were captured was an exception. The action was intended to provide negotiating chips for the release of Hezbollah prisoners held in Israel (and perhaps to demonstrate solidarity with Hamas, which had just captured another Israeli soldier in a similar incursion.) Hassan Nasrallah later admitted that this was a grave mistake and would not have been done if he had imagined that it would cause a war. (Olmert, on his part, has not admitted to any mistake.)

As I said right at the beginning, this incident was a pretext for the war, not the reason for it. If so, what was the real reason? The desire of the civilian Olmert for military glory? The dream of the Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz, to prove that the Air Force could win a war alone, by a massive bombardment of the civilian population? The illusion that Hezbollah could be eliminated by one big strike?

When Judge Winograd tried to explain why a part of the report must be kept secret, the words he used attracted no attention: "The security of the state and its foreign relations". Foreign relations? What foreign relations? Relations with whom? There is only one reasonable answer: relations with the United States.

That could be the crux of the matter: Olmert fulfilled an American wish. President Bush wanted to install his protégé, Fouad Siniora, as ruler in Beirut. For that end, Hezbollah, the main Lebanese opposition force, had to be eliminated. Also, Bush wanted to effect a regime change in Syria, one of the main obstacles to American ambitions in the region.

I believe that this is the missing link in Winograd’s chain. Olmert could have argued: "I was only obeying orders". But that, of course, is unspeakable.

The other black hole in the report concerns the Israeli army. The report criticizes it murderously. Never before has the army leadership been described in such a way – as a bunch of people without character, talent or competence; generals who are ready to send soldiers to their death in an operation they believe to be condemned to failure, just because they do not dare to stand up to their superiors; generals who do not demand a clear definition of the objectives before going into battle; Generals who do not recognize the fateful faults of their army, and who are themselves responsible – they and their predecessors – for these very faults.

All this is being said now. What has not been said is: how did we get such a leadership? What has caused these faults?

The answers can be summed up in two words: the occupation.

In the last few years I have written dozens of articles about the disastrous effects of the occupation on the army. One cannot employ a whole army for decades as a colonial police force for crushing the resistance of an occupied population, without changing its character. Soldiers who run after stone-throwing children in the alleys of the Qasbah, who hammer at night on the doors of civilians, who use bulldozers to destroy people’s homes, and all this for year after year – such soldiers are not competent to fight a modern war.

Worse: such a colonial army does not attract the best and the brightest. These now go into high-tech and science. The brutal work of the army against civilians and guerrilla fighters disgusts people of conscience and sensitivity, the very ones who are the backbone of a good officers’ corps. It blunts the senses of those who remain, or sends them home from the occupied territories traumatized.

In the 40 years of occupation, the Israeli army has lost the kind of officers that led it in the 1948 and 1967 wars, people like Yitzhak Sadeh, Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weitzman, Matti Peled, Haim Bar-Lev and David Elazar, to mention just a few. Their place has been taken by a mediocre, faceless group, gray but arrogant technicians, people of shallow thinking, colonialist and extreme right-wing attitudes, with an ever increasing percentage of knitted kippa-wearers.

That is the group the report speaks of – but without saying so. It is an occupation army in which a negative natural selection process operates – everyone who does not feel comfortable in this milieu just leaves. As in any army, the atmosphere prevailing at the top – good or bad – trickles down the ranks to the meanest soldier.

This is not an army of Stalingrad fighters defending their country – this is an army of Winograd fighters. An army which no genius can "repair", as demanded by the commission. Because all the faults stem from the original sin: the occupation.

– Uri Avnery, an Israeli writer and peace activist, founded the Gush Shalom movement. He had served three terms as an MP at the Knesset. He contributed this article to

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