Olmert faces fall-out from Lebanon report

A commission investigating Israeli failings in last year’s war in Lebanon on Tuesday placed a potential time bomb under the government of Ehud Olmert by saying its interim report due next month would draw conclusions about the prime minister’s personal responsibility.

Most of Mr Olmert’s one-year-old term has been dominated by the Lebanon conflict and its aftermath which, coupled with a string of corruption scandals, have reduced his popularity rating to single figures.

A spokesman for the government-appointed commission headed by Eliyahu Winograd, a retired judge, said the interim report would examine events leading up to the 34-day war that was sparked by Hizbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers last July.

Contrary to recent unsourced leaks to the media, it would also include personal conclusions regarding the responsibility of Mr Olmert, Amir Peretz, defence minister, and Dan Halutz, the retired chief of staff, a spokesman for the commission said.

The prospect of a critical report has exacerbated a postwar political malaise that has already led many commentators to question how long the Olmert cabinet can survive.

Mr Olmert is among a number of ministers who face questioning in a series of corruption cases. One is on trial for making politically motivated appointments and another quit to face a charge of sexual misconduct, of which he was found guilty. Other institutional scandals have erupted in the police and the tax authority.

Government officials were hoping to fend off any findings of personal responsibility until the full report of the Winograd commission is released later this year. Mr Olmert, who was among those who gave evidence in camera, has been criticised for stumbling into a full-scale conflict with Hizbollah with inadequate preparation.

The prime minister was reported to have told the commission that plans for an Israeli response to a Hizbollah kidnapping of soldiers had been discussed with the military four months before the fighting broke out.

However, his version of events has been challenged in the press by unnamed officers in the defence forces. Mr Olmert and Mr Peretz have been variously accused of over-reacting to the Hizbollah provocation, relying too heavily on air power and belatedly mounting a bloody ground assault. The government is also charged with making inadequate preparations to safeguard civilians in northern Israel who came under intense rocket attack by Hizbollah.

The premier’s problems have led to a steady decline in his opinion poll standing and prompted speculation that he might be forced into new elections or be replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu, rightwing Likud opposition leader and his long-standing political rival.

A poll last week by Israel’s Channel 10 television showed Mr Olmert’s popularity at 3 per cent and Mr Peretz’s at 1 per cent. In a survey that put Mr Netanyahu as frontrunner for the premiership with 30 per cent support, 57 per cent of respondents said they favoured early elections. Almost three-quarters said Mr Olmert should quit.

Mr Netanyahu, a former prime minister, said last week that a number of parliamentarians from Mr Olmert’s Kadima party had approached Likud with a view to rejoining his party. The centrist Kadima attracted many former Likud loyalists when it was established in 2005.

If Mr Netanyahu succeeded in assembling enough Kadima defectors he might be able to gain a majority in parliament to support his premiership without the need for new elections.

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