Report adds to growing pressure on Olmert

JERUSALEM—Early in the evening of July 12, eight hours after Hezbollah militants seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid from Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called his top military and political leaders together to debate how Israel should respond.

The discussion was heated, the advisors divided. Israel's top spy even questioned the purpose of a counterattack. "I still don't understand the goal of the operation," said Meir Dagan, the Director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

In the end, Israel would launch a widespread bombing campaign that killed hundreds of Lebanese while Hezbollah rained down rockets on Israel, forcing thousands of Israelis to flee their homes. The 34-day war ended with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire after an Israeli ground assault largely failed to dislodge Hezbollah militants from their redoubts.

Now a 318-page interim report by an Israeli government commission investigating the roots of what many consider an Israeli defeat is providing a rare behind-the-scenes look at a fractious government that the Bush administration counts on as its most reliable Middle East ally and confidant.

Among the questions the report raises is what the Israelis expected from the Bush administration as they undertook their campaign. At the time of the war, news accounts suggested that the Israelis were hoping that the Bush administration would allow them to pursue the war for weeks before stepping in to call for a cease-fire.

The report, however, suggests the opposite. It quotes both Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, then Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz as telling their colleagues in the final meeting before the Israeli war plan is set that they expected the "international community" to step in within days to stop the bloodshed and arrange for the release of the Israeli soldiers.

"What is victory?" Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asked.

"There is no victory here, there is no knockout," said Halutz, who resigned earlier this year. "What we need to do is respond so forcefully that the international community will have to get involved . . . . I don't know of a military action that will bring home the kidnapped soldiers."

Peretz agreed that the international community would step in within days to end the fighting. "We must see these next two days as the two days when we will act most dramatically and forcefully," the report quotes him as saying.

Instead, it was more than two weeks before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered a 48-hour cease-fire after a controversial Israeli bombing raid.

Based on notes taken during crucial meetings and interviews with key players, and with verbatim quotations lending a sense of urgency and authenticity, the full Hebrew-language report portrays the Olmert government in even harsher terms than did a 12-page English-language executive summary that was released on Monday.

From the beginning, the Hebrew text makes clear, Olmert and his advisers had very different views of the war and its likely outcome.

Halutz, an air force officer, pushed a plan to attack Lebanese roads, the Beirut airport, power plants and other key infrastructure targets. He called the need for a ground invasion "improbable."

Peretz opposed bombing power plants. He wanted the air force to strike Hezbollah rockets instead. He worried that they'd be used to target Israeli cities, a notion that Halutz dismissed.

Intelligence chief Dagan warned against a broad campaign that would require a lengthy military commitment. "If we want to extract a price, fine," the report quotes him a saying. "But if we want to obtain different goals . . . that will demand a very long period of action in Lebanon."

Within hours of the report's release, Olmert faced a political siege that continued to grow on Tuesday.

Newspapers were filled with critical stories and calls for his resignation, and members of his centrist Kadima Party met privately to consider asking their leader to step down. Demonstrators marched outside his Jerusalem office and made plans for a major protest in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

Eitan Cabel, a member of Olmert's coalition government from the rival Labor Party, became the first cabinet minister to resign in protest. "The public has lost faith," Cabel said. "Olmert bears responsibility, and responsibility cannot be shared."

Olmert tried to remain out of the line of fire and met with key coalition partners to ask for their continued support. After making a brief televised "mistakes were made" statement Monday night, he kept silent Tuesday.

Olmert's aides said he was focusing on his duties as prime minister and doing what he could to address the concerns the report raised. He received important statements of support from small partners in his coalition government, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and the conservative Yisrael Beiteinu.

But his problems are likely to intensify. The report by the Winograd Committee, named for its chairman, retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, covers only the first five days of the war. The final report, expected this summer, will examine the last four weeks of fighting, when things got worse for Israel.

"Israel is in a crisis," said Shmuel Sandler, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "I think we are going to be in a very dangerous situation for the next couple of weeks."

According to the commission, the war's early hours were decisive and set Israel on a course that could end only in something other than victory.

Olmert didn't understand, the commission wrote, that "the military actions that had been decided on could not sufficiently weaken Hezbollah, and he did not correctly assess the significance of rocket fire on the home front." The prime minister also didn't realize that a ground invasion, not just an air assault, would be necessary if Israel hoped to achieve its "ambitious goals."

What Olmert was thinking, the committee said, was a mystery, "a black box."

Peretz is painted as timid and ineffective, even though he understood the flaws in the planning and the likely negative international reaction that massive bombing strikes would engender. But he did little to stop the military from proceeding, the commission found.

"His understandings did not translate into real contributions—in discussions within the army or with the prime minister or in policy forums—where the goal was to discuss doubts that had arisen, demand proposals or clarifications or an orderly presentation of answers to his questions," the committee wrote.

By the end of that final meeting, Israel's government had agreed on a limited air attack on Beirut's airport and had selected Hezbollah military targets. It would be 33 more days before the fighting would end.