Olmert under fire

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came under heavy criticism Tuesday for announcing the creation of a committee of inquiry to examine the failures of the Lebanon war rather than a powerful independent commission.

Acknowledging a wave of discontent for a war that failed to achieve its main objectives and which left 162 Israelis dead, the increasingly unpopular Olmert said Monday the committee of inquiry would be chaired by a former Mossad head.

“The committee will be charged with the task of examining the functioning of the government, its proceedings and decision making and anything else it sees fit to examine,” he said in a televised speech. But he rejected the establishment of a state commission — the most powerful type of inquiry in Israel — which he said would “competely paralyse” the leadership when warfare was not yet fully over and Iran posed a threat. Politicians on both the left- and right-wing united in a maelstrom of criticism that Olmert, whose approval ratings have sunk to an all-time low since taking office in May, had backed a toothless inquiry. The nation’s leadership, already reeling from scandal, has come under heavy fire over Israel’s monthlong war against Hizbollah, which failed to stop rocket attacks or free two soldiers captured by the Shiite fighters in July 12 cross-border raids that sparked the offensive.

Ami Ayalon, an MP with Olmert’s main coalition partner, the centre-left Labour, branded the prime minister’s decision a political mistake.

“I don’t think this is what we need. They have no power to investigate people, no power to look at documents. It’s a political mistake,” he told Israel Radio.

“There is not the slightest chance of getting to the truth because it lacks power,” added Danny Naveh, former Cabinet minister and member of the opposition right-wing Likud Party.

A group of army reservists, blasting military “indecisiveness”, unclear war aims, confused orders, food, fuel and water shortages, and the slowness in launching a major ground assault, have spearheaded calls for a full investigative commission, along with several Cabinet members. But Olmert aides Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit and Interior Minister Ronni Bar-On defended the prime minister.

“If there were a state commission of inquiry, Ehud Olmert would actually come out clean,” said Sheetrit, appointed temporary justice minister to replace Haim Ramon who was forced to resign amid allegations of sexual assault. “His decision to go for an investigative committee and not a state commission stems from his concern that it would paralyse the establishment for several years, instead of dealing with the issues,” he told army radio.

MPs in the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee complained that their chairman, Tzahi Hanegbi, a senior member of Olmert’s Kadima Party, prevented them from holding a vote in favour of a state commission.

Olmert’s decision was greeted with scorn by several dozen reservists and protesters who have camped out in front of his Jerusalem office to demand a state inquiry, but have yet to galvanise the momentum that toppled the government after the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

“The public is not stupid and it will totally reject this conspiratorial attempt to create a smokescreen and not investigate the truth. This committee is only a fig leaf,” wrote its chairman Eliad Shraga in the Maariv daily.

The country’s best selling newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, condemned what it branded “the mother of all whitewashes” while the liberal Haaretz daily dismissed the committee as a “national farce”.

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