JERUSALEM — An independent commission looking into Israel's failed invasion of Lebanon in 2006 castigated both the army and political leaders, but it gave Prime Minster Ehud Olmert's governing coalition breathing room as it continues peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
"All in all, the (Israel Defense Forces) failed, especially because of the conduct of the high command and the ground forces, to provide an effective military response to the challenge posed to it by the war in Lebanon and thus failed to provide the political echelon with a military achievement that could have served as the basis for political and diplomatic action," said Eliyahu Winograd, a retired district judge who headed the commission.
The 34-day war began when Hezbollah guerrillas attacked along Israel's northern border, killing three members of an Israeli army patrol and capturing two others. In the course of the war, 119 Israeli soldiers, 40 Israeli civilians and more than a thousand Lebanese were reported killed.
The Winograd commission gave at least partial support to Olmert, saying the decision to start the operation was based on the facts presented to him.
"There was no failure in that decision in itself, despite its limited achievements and its painful costs," the report said.
But once the decision was made, the government apparently never reconsidered it. "We have not seen a discussion, in either the political or the military echelons, of the issue of stopping the military operation after the (United Nations) Security Council resolution was adopted," the report said.
The Israeli government created the commission, under heavy public pressure, to investigate the failures of a war that resulted in what was widely perceived as an Israeli defeat.
Last summer the Winograd commission issued an interim report that harshly criticized the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff for hasty, ill-informed decisions. Since then, both the defense minister and chief of staff have resigned, leaving Olmert as the only one of the war's architects still in office. Following the interim report, opposition leaders, joined by groups of reservists and bereaved families, called on Olmert to resign.
Of equal concern to Olmert is a promise made by current Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party, to work for new elections after the publication of the final Winograd report.
As Olmert's largest coalition partner, if the Labor Party leaves, the government may well collapse. Barak, however, seems reluctant to leave the government as public opinion polls found the Labor Party doing poorly in elections and the right-wing opposition Likud party under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu surging.
The fact that the committee focused on military failures also may have provided Barak with enough cover to stay in the government, according to Dr. Raanan Keinan-Sulitzeanu of Hebrew University.
The last three days of the war have been widely regarded as the most controversial. It was during that time that Israel launched a large-scale ground operation against Hezbollah fighters even as the U.N. Security Council was drawing up a cease-fire proposal. The assault cost the lives of 33 Israeli soldiers, and some considered it to have been unnecessary. Olmert, however, has argued that without that assault, the U.N. cease-fire proposal would have been much less favorable to Israel.
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)