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Israeli inquiry into Lebanon war criticises Olmert

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM, April 30 (Reuters) - Israel's Lebanon war commission levelled scathing criticism against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an interim report on Monday that cast doubt on his political future but did not call on him to resign.

Olmert "made up his mind hastily" to launch the air, sea and land campaign last July against Hezbollah guerrillas, the government-appointed panel said, accusing him of "a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence".

His declared aims in going to war, to free two soldiers seized by Hezbollah and crush the militant group, were "overly ambitious and impossible to achieve", the Winograd commission said of a conflict many Israelis now see as a mistake.

"I have no intention of resigning," Olmert was quoted by Israeli television as telling members of his Kadima party after the report was released. A snap Israel Radio poll said 69 percent of the public believed he should quit.

The 232-page report also sharply criticised Defence Minister Amir Peretz, who like Olmert does not have a military pedigree, and the armed forces' chief of staff during the 34 days of fighting, Dan Halutz, who has since resigned.

Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets into Israel during the fighting, forcing a million residents into shelters in a blow to the Middle East's mightiest military. Israel sent warplanes to bomb in southern Beirut neighbourhoods, Hezbollah strongholds.

A total of 158 Israelis were killed in the war -- 117 soldiers and 41 civilians. About 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, including an estimated 270 Hezbollah guerrillas.


The report, assigning Olmert "supreme and comprehensive responsibility" for government decisions and army operations, seemed likely to stir public sentiment against him. He recently described himself as "indestructible" in a French magazine.

"We will definitely study your material ... and ensure that in any future threat scenario against Israel, the difficulties and faults you cited will be corrected," Olmert said in broadcast comments.

His approval ratings plunged to single digits after the inconclusive war and a U.S.-initiated dialogue between the Israeli leader and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has shown few results.

Olmert has said the war improved Israel's security by banishing Hezbollah from its frontier strongholds and boosting a U.N. peacekeeper force in southern Lebanon.

A rally calling for Olmert and his government to quit was planned for Thursday in Tel Aviv. The demonstration was being organised by a former general, military reservists who fought in the war and parents of soldiers killed in the conflict.

Israeli political analysts, however, were divided over whether such protests would gather steam in a country where years of corruption scandals at the top seem to have led many to believe no worthy leaders wait in the wings to take charge.

The panel has not ruled out calling for Olmert or Peretz to step down in a final report due to be published in a few months.

"Sometimes there is no way in which to achieve proper rectification without removing those who have filled key roles in the examined events," the report said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to comment on the findings but said U.S. President George W. Bush works closely with Olmert and considers him "essential in working toward a two-state solution" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide, described the war inquiry as an internal Israeli affair.

Noting Olmert's lack of high-level military experience, the commission said he went to war without consulting experts outside the Israeli armed forces.

The full report, by the panel of two jurists, two former generals and a public policy expert, is to be released in a couple of months.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Corinne Heller)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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