JERUSALEM – Did Prime Minister Ehud Olmert know a cease-fire would be imposed within two days when, after a month of fighting in Lebanon, he green-lighted a large-scale ground operation last week for which the Israeli Defense Forces allegedly had been petitioning for weeks?
That is the question many military officials are asking. The answer, they say, could determine the future of the Olmert government.
The operation, in which 15 soldiers were killed, was scratched within 48 hours after Olmert accepted a cease-fire.
“It’s possible Olmert knew a cease-fire was coming. If so, our stepped-up operation that he approved two days earlier was a pointless exercise in which troops were killed. This is a very serious situation,” said a senior military official speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Olmert ordered the massive battle last Thursday reportedly after four weeks of refusing a larger ground offensive to reach Lebanon’s Litani River – about 18 miles from the Israeli border, encompassing the swath of territory from which Hezbollah fired most of its rockets into northern Israel.
Troop advances were halted some 48 hours later in line with a cease-fire proposal accepted by Israel this past Monday.
Israeli military officials tell WorldNetDaily that from the start of the Jewish state’s campaign in Lebanon last month, the IDF petitioned for the deployment of up to 40,000 ground troops to advance immediately to the Litani River and from there work their way back to the Israeli border while surrounding and then cleaning out Hezbollah strongholds under heavy aerial cover.
But Olmert at first only approved aerial assaults, they say. After Hezbollah retaliated by firing large numbers of rockets into Israel, the Olmert government approved a smaller ground offensive of up to 8,000 soldiers who, according to military officials, were not directed to advance to the Litani. The IDF was charged with cleaning out Hezbollah’s bases within about three miles of the Israeli border.
IDF leaders told WND they suffered in “very specific” ways on the battlefield because of a lack of sufficient ground troops. They cited instances in which they claimed there were not enough soldiers to surround key villages, such as Bint JBail in southern Lebanon, allowing Hezbollah fighters to infiltrate cities after the IDF began combat inside the areas.
After nearly four weeks of fighting, Olmert’s cabinet last week approved the larger assault the IDF had petitioned for, authorizing about 40,000 troops to enter Lebanon and advance to the Latani River. The IDF estimated it would need about three days to reach central Lebanon and another four to six weeks to successfully wipe out the Hezbollah infrastructure in the areas leading back to the Israeli border.
But Monday morning – three days after the Israeli army was given a green light to advance – a cease-fire was imposed and the Jewish state suspended operations.
Fifteen Israeli troops were killed during the IDF’s advance to the Litani. Israel the past two days has withdrawn from about one-third of the territory it captured, including its positions at Litani, transferring the land to the control of the Lebanese army.
Attempting to fulfill obligations of a cease-fire agreement imposed Monday, a symbolic contingent of about 2,500 troops from the Lebanese army on Thursday began deploying in the southern sections of Lebanon while the United Nations worked to assemble an international force to be deployed in the area with the stated goal of ensuring Hezbollah does not rearm.
“If Olmert did not know a cease-fire was coming, then our reaching the Litani would have been crucial for the continued battle. We needed to clean out those areas to defeat Hezbollah. If he did know, Olmert sent our troops to their deaths for nothing other than to prove we can reach the Litani,” the military official said.
The official charged that whether the IDF reached the Litani or not, the cease-fire agreement would still call for the Lebanese army and an international force to deploy in the area.
Olmert has not yet responded to the charges, which military officials have been leaking to the media.
Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz this week told the Knesset the decision to expand the ground operation and advance to the Litani River was not made with the knowledge that the fighting would end within 48 hours.
“When we began the operation, we did not know we only had 48 hours. We knew a diplomatic process was set to begin, but we didn’t know we’d have to stop after 48 hours,” Halutz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday.
He noted that when the decision to expand the fighting was made, the U.N. Security Council had not yet approved a resolution on the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
Halutz said the operation had been planned for Wednesday, but was delayed by two days due to diplomatic efforts being made.
Halutz’s comments incensed some military leaders.
“He is admitting to our worst fears,” said the senior military leader. “That our fighting and lives were subjected to back and forth diplomacy.”
Indeed, military officials told WND on several occasions the past few weeks, while heavy diplomacy looked to be gaining momentum, such as during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visits here, that the IDF was asked by the political echelon to halt most operations and troop advances for up to 36 hours while negotiations ran their course.
Military leaders charge some troop battalions, instructed to hold positions outside villages but not to advance, became sitting ducks for Hezbollah antitank fire, which killed at least 35 Israeli soldiers. After the diplomacy failed, the military officials say, soldiers were ordered to carry on.
The military officials are demanding the government’s management of the war be probed.
“We are demanding a national commission of inquiry,” a military official said. “And not some hack committee appointed by politicians to whitewash them.”
Defense Minister Amir Peretz yesterday announced that he had appointed a committee to examine the events of the war, but his commission was met with harsh criticism by Knesset members, the IDF and Israel’s security establishment.
Peretz appointed former IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak to head the inquiry. Lipkin-Shahak is a senior Peretz adviser and was on the team of external planners during the war. Critics charged Lipkin-Shahak could not lead an unbiased investigation.
Knesset Member and National Union Faction Chairman Uri Ariel told reporters, “Peretz’s committee is a failure to claim responsibility and is spitting in the face of the fighters. The public in general, and soldiers who fought in particular, are demanding a real investigation that will include the government and especially the prime minister and the defense minister. The current committee won’t do that.”
Politicians from all sides of Israel’s political spectrum yesterday demanded a national commission of inquiry be appointed.
Yossi Beilin, chairman of the leftist Meretz party, said: “No attempt by Peretz to set up an internal committee will be accepted as a replacement for a state committee that will look at diplomatic, military and social aspects of the second Lebanon war.”