Israeli leader Olmert spends 7 hours before commission investigating war

JERUSALEM (AP) – In seven hours of testimony and intense questioning, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday defended his much-criticized actions during the war in Lebanon before a commission whose findings could determine his political fate. 

Olmert’s approval ratings have plunged since Israel’s inconclusive war against Hezbollah guerrillas last summer. His testimony before the Winograd commission has been widely perceived as his last chance to avoid censure, which could force him from office.

The prime minister was the last witness to appear before the panel before it releases an interim report in the coming weeks. The commission was appointed last fall to try to reconstruct the government’s decisions during the war. While the panel does not have the authority to dismiss government officials, it can determine if anyone should be censured.

The government has been criticized for failing to meet its main war objectives: destroying Hezbollah and returning two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 capture by the guerrillas sparked the war.

Reserve soldiers returning from the battlefield complained of poor preparations and lack of food and ammunition. The army also has been disparaged for failing to prevent Hezbollah from firing some 4,000 rockets into Israel.

An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity as required by civil service rules, described Olmert’s testimony as “to the point and very detailed.” He did not apportion blame, the official said. “His purpose was to explain to the committee the decisions taken at decisive stages during the campaign.”

Officials in Olmert’s office declined to comment further on the closed hearing.

But Ynet, the Yediot Ahronot daily’s website, said Olmert told the panel Israel won the war by achieving important diplomatic and military successes. However, he also acknowledged deficiencies in the conduct of the war, the report said, citing unidentified aides to the prime minister.

One of the government’s most controversial decisions was to launch a broad ground invasion just as a UN-brokered ceasefire was being finalized. More than 30 Israeli soldiers were killed in the final push, which the government said was necessary to maximize gains against Hezbollah.

Ynet said Olmert praised the ceasefire for bringing an international peacekeeping force to police the border and pushing Hezbollah deeper into Lebanon. He also said Israel’s intense aerial campaign, which caused heavy damage in Lebanon, caught Hezbollah off guard and would deter attacks.

Olmert appointed the Winograd commission, in part to stave off calls for a formal commission of inquiry, which would have the authority to fire officials. Still, with Olmert’s public approval ratings dismally low, many analysts believe a critical report could force him to resign.

Israel’s army chief, Dan Halutz, recently resigned, and there have been widespread calls for Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz, to follow suit.

Olmert has repeatedly declared victory in the war, but many Israelis disagree.

The war killed between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants, according to tallies by government agencies, humanitarian groups and The Associated Press. A total of 120 Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting, and 39 civilians were killed by Hezbollah rockets fired into northern Israel during the conflict. The war ended in the Aug. 14 ceasefire.

The Winograd commission, headed by a retired judge, is expected to issue an interim report in March.

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