Between the lines

Between the lines, the Winograd commission report tells us quite accurately that Israel is different from the western democracies it aspires to resemble. Because of its strategic situation and the security challenges confronting it, it needs senior leaders with a strong capacity, based on a combination of wisdom and experience, to make sound decisions in the realm of national-security–i.e., in matters of peace and war. They don’t necessarily have to be ex-generals, but they have to display the desired decision-making capability as a precondition to holding the office of prime minister or defense minister.

Accordingly, those who follow PM Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz are likely to be more qualified than them to hold their jobs. But if, in the short term, Olmert succeeds in his quest to remain in office despite the devastating conclusions of the Winograd report concerning his decision-making last summer, he will almost certainly be crippled in the performance of his duties–not only by his low public approval rating and proven lack of capacity to hold his office, but also by the high standard of performance set by the commission’s recommendations. True, Olmert’s successors will also be held up to this standard. But they at least will have a clean slate. And hopefully they will be more capable.

Eventually, the luster of the Winograd recommendations is liable to wear off. Sadly, they might end up filed away with the unapplied judgments of earlier commissions of inquiry. In the interim, though, the report’s insights regarding Israel’s security decision-makers, when applied to the sphere of Israeli-Palestinian relations, are liable to constrain the freedom of decision that an Israeli prime minister enjoys in deciding which avenues of war and peace to pursue with the Palestinians. This is particularly so if Olmert remains in office.

Thus in a near-term worst case scenario, the Palestinians (and Iran, Syria and Hizballah) are liable to interpret Israel’s strategic position as one of considerable weakness, precisely because the prime minister’s hands appear to be tied. In particular, the non-state actors on our immediate borders (Hamas and other militants in Gaza; Hizballah in Lebanon) cannot help but notice that Winograd, in omitting immediate recommendations for improving the defensive capability of Israel’s civilian rear, points to a dilemma: the IDF will not have the capacity to intercept incoming short-range rockets for a year or two at least; nor does the government have any immediate capability to provide significantly improved conditions for bombarded civilians.

Suppose, for example, that Hamas wants to draw Israel, against its better judgment, into reoccupying Gaza with all that this entails for IDF losses, controversy among the Israeli public and complications with the international community. It could be tempted into launching a major rocket attack on the western Negev region and beyond. A new and more qualified Israeli leader would be far better suited to responding to this sort of dilemma than Olmert and Peretz.

There are two important areas of Israeli policy regarding the Palestinian issue that are linked to last summer’s events yet are not even dealt with between the lines of the Winograd report. This is unfortunate, because these are critical areas of Israeli policy that desperately need to be revised and that would have benefited from the voicing of firm criticism and constructive recommendations for change by the commission.

First, the link between 40 years of IDF occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and particularly the past six years during which the IDF fought the second intifada, on the one hand, and the army’s poor performance on the ground in Lebanon last summer on the other, is not pursued to its logical conclusion. As long as Israel has other wars to fight, the military occupation of Palestinian territories, meaning essentially police/gendarmerie duties that reduce the army’s capacity to train as an army, are bad for the IDF’s warfighting capabilities and erode its readiness to engage in anything approaching classic warfare. In other words, the sooner we end the occupation, the more capable we will be of dealing militarily with the challenges posed by Iran, Syria and Hizballah.

Secondly, the commission completely ignored the motivation for Hamas and Hizballah to engage in the abduction of IDF soldiers last June and July–the actions that started the war. From the standpoint of Hamas and Hizballah, abductions were the only conceivable way to free Palestinians and Lebanese in Israeli prisons. Israel’s sentencing policies regarding enemy terrorists are draconian compared to the enlightened prison conditions it imposes on its own citizens convicted of murder. An Israeli murderer sentenced to life imprisonment knows he/she will be released after 20 years and will enjoy the occasional weekend leave from prison from about year eight of his/her sentence. If Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails knew they could be released after 20 years, the incentive to start wars in order to effect their release might be reduced.