World

Inquiry report raps Israeli PM: TV reports

The situation for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been under fire almost since he won the election a year ago, is expected to get far worse when a commission investigating last year's inconclusive war in Lebanon releases its first findings Monday.

The situation for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whohas been under fire almost since he won the election a year ago, is expected to get far worse when a commission investigating last year's war in Lebanon releases its first findings Monday.

Leaked sections of the report have shown it will include fierce criticism of Olmert, likely raising pressure on the Israeli leader to step down.

The panel is assessing the performance of Olmert and his government during the 34-day war, which began when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a July 12 cross-border raid.

The interim report will analyze the first six days of the fighting, when the war's objectives were formulated, and the six years between Israel's May 2000 pullout from southern Lebanon and the outbreak of the conflict. The full report on the entire war is to be released in the summer.

Olmert reluctantly appointed the commission of inquiry in September after coming under intense pressure from a public dissatisfied with the outcome of the war.

The war failed to achieve two aims Olmert set: crushing Hezbollah and returning the two captured soldiers.

The military also has been criticized for failing to stop Hezbollah from bombarding northern Israel with almost 4,000 rockets, while soldiers returning from battle complained of a lack of supplies, poor preparation and conflicting orders.

Although the commission, headed by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, does not have the power to dismiss officials, a disparaging report could spark mass protests and force Olmert and the equally unpopular defence minister, Amir Peretz, to resign.

Noisy public demonstrations were expected after release of the report. Widespread criticism already led the wartime military chief, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, to step down in January.

Over the weekend, officials close to the investigation, confirming Israeli TV reports, said the interim report would include tough criticism of Olmert and Peretz.

Among the findings are that both men made hasty and ill-judged decisions at the outset of the war, and these errors were compounded by their lack of experience and unfamiliarity with defence issues, the officials said.

Neither Olmert nor Peretz have military backgrounds, and the fighting erupted less than two months after they took office. The report will not call for any resignations, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the report has not been made public.

The report will also say that Halutz did not provide political leaders with a sufficient range of military options, played down the rocket threat and silenced dissenting opinions within the army command, Israeli media said.

Olmert's office declined comment until the report's official publication, but aides said Olmert was confident he would weather the storm and that he had no intention of quitting.

Following the initial leaks, Olmert faced a fresh chorus of resignation calls Sunday, both from the opposition and members of Peretz's Labour party, which is in Olmert's governing coalition. Two opposition legislators said they planned to submit bills to dissolve parliament and force early elections.

While Olmert remains deeply unpopular —his government has also been plagued by a series of sex and corruption scandals —he may be able to survive since his coalition partners might prefer to keep the unpopular prime minister in power rather than face a disgruntled electorate.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hardline Likud party, would sweep to victory if new elections are held, according to polls in Israeli newspapers.

In the meantime, the war's heavy toll still reverberates. Between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants were killed, as were 119 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres pledged that the report's findings would be taken seriously.

"We shall correct everything that calls for correction," he said.

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