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Report criticizes war performance by Israeli premier

JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's tenuous hold on power was shaken Monday when a special government committee accused him of rashly leading an unprepared nation into an ill-advised war last summer with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

In an indictment even harsher than expected, the preliminary investigative report accused Olmert of demonstrating a "severe failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and caution" during the 34-day war, which ended in a stalemate that many said was a victory for Hezbollah.

The committee stopped short of calling for Olmert to step aside, but its conclusions are providing ample ammunition for a growing number of critics who want to topple the prime minister's year-old centrist government.

"This has been a devastating report for Olmert," said Hirsh Goodman, a scholar at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "They're basically crucifying him."

With snap news polls showing only 15 percent of Israelis backing Olmert, the prime minister made an unscheduled televised appeal for support.

"It would not be right to resign, and I don't intend to," Olmert said in a one-minute statement delivered from his office. "Mistakes were made. There were failures on the part of central decision-makers, and I am chief among them. We must learn the lessons and fix the deficiencies—and there are many of them."

Among them: The Israeli army had become over-confident and wasn't prepared to fight a well-armed, tactically sophisticated enemy.

"The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) was not ready for this war," the committee wrote in its executive summary.

After pulling out of Lebanon in 2000 after a dispiriting 18-year campaign, Israel developed a misguided belief that its military might placed it "beyond the era of wars," the committee wrote. Instead of preparing to fight a "real war," the IDF focused on low-intensity fighting against poorly armed adversaries.

The harshest criticism was reserved for Olmert, however, whose centrist Kadima party was formed in the political fallout from Israel's pullout from the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip nearly two years ago.

The prime minister ignored reservations within his government and rushed into the war without asking enough questions or ensuring that Israel had a good military plan, the committee found.

The panel also focused on Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the former trade union leader who heads the Labor Party, Olmert's partner in the ruling coalition.

The committee painted Peretz as an inexperienced and incompetent leader with virtually no military experience or understanding of basic war concepts. Instead of seeking expert advice, Peretz endangered the nation by dismissing valid concerns about the war plans, ignoring different strategies and failing to make sure that the army was ready to fight, the report said.

The third person mentioned in the report is Dan Halutz, the wartime chief of staff who resigned earlier this year as the report's findings leaked to news organizations. The committee castigated Halutz for failing to fully explain the ramifications of a rush to war to Olmert and Peretz, even though he knew both had little to no military experience.

"If any one of them had acted in a better manner, the decisions—and the way they were made in the period examined, as well as the war itself—would have been vastly improved," the committee said.

The unvarnished report could hasten a much-anticipated reshuffling of the government, if not a total political realignment.

Peretz has made it clear that he doesn't want to remain defense minister, and his Labor Party is likely to choose a new leader at this month's political convention.

Olmert could face new challenges from rivals in the Kadima party. Thus far, the lack of rivals with the stature, power or popularity to bring down his government has helped him hold on to power.

Israel launched the war with Hezbollah on July 12 after the militant group, based in southern Lebanon, ambushed an Israeli border patrol and captured two soldiers. Israel responded almost immediately with a bombing campaign that decimated parts of Lebanon but failed to free the soldiers or severely damage Hezbollah. In just over a month, the Israeli military killed more than 1,000 people in Lebanon, including hundreds of civilians. Hezbollah rockets and fighters killed more than 40 Israeli civilians and 120 soldiers.

While Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said after the war that he was surprised by Israel's response and wouldn't have staged the attack if he'd known how Israel would respond, the militant group emerged from the war as the political victor. Israel ended the war without securing freedom for its two soldiers, who remain in captivity.

That reality—and the need to fix the problems highlighted in the report—shouldn't be overshadowed by the wrangling for political power, said Gidi Grinstein, an adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak who heads The Reut Institute research center in Tel Aviv.

"They want to see heads rolling down the steps, but what was exposed in 2006 is that Israel is in a situation of strategic inferiority with regard to our adversaries, and our chances of winning future conflicts was significantly decreased," Grinstein said.

The committee is expected to release its full report this summer. While the panel decided to steer clear of specific calls for punishment or resignation this time, it said it was considering doing so when it released the final report.

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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