Olmert account of war released

Civilian deaths in Qana bombing extended Lebanon conflict, Israeli premier testified

May 11, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

JERUSALEM -- In confidential testimony on last summer's war against the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the Israeli killing of a group of civilians in Qana in late July was a turning point that delayed a diplomatic resolution.

"The fact is, if Qana hadn't happened, there is good reason to believe that we would have been in a very good position to complete the process," he said in testimony released after editing for security purposes.

The Qana bombing, which Olmert said damaged Israel's case abroad, occurred when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Israel trying to secure a cease-fire.

Olmert was responding to questions from the Winograd Commission, which is investigating the war. His comments were contained in testimony made public yesterday that included accounts by Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who resigned in January as military chief of staff.

Their testimony, given in confidence without lawyers present, was made public after the Israeli Supreme Court agreed that it should be and was redacted by military censors.

Two of the five members of the commission, which was appointed by the Israeli government and led by a retired judge, Eliyahu Winograd, condemned the publication. Ruth Gavison, a law professor, and Menachem Einan, a reserve general, said that to publish statements given in a closed session, even if vetted to prevent harm to security or to Israel's foreign relations, would discourage officials from testifying freely.

In his testimony, Olmert said, "I really feel that I can talk to you about everything, and I know what I say won't leave this room."

Still, few revelations were made after the first part of the commission report, dealing with the early days of the war, was published April 30.

Olmert said the army told him in March 2006 that it was fully prepared for war in the north and that a potential conflict with Hezbollah had been one of his priorities. He said he had also had a report from the security services that training was lax given budgetary problems, but he had relied on the army's claim to be ready.

He said he knew from the first report on July 12 that two Israeli soldiers had been captured by Hezbollah that he had to act forcefully, even knowing that Hezbollah would fire rockets at Israeli towns in the north.

"If we hadn't attacked that evening, we wouldn't have attacked, full stop," he said. He insisted that the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who had complained of being left out of critical decisions, had been a partner to all important diplomatic discussions.

In Qana, the Israelis said, they were responding to rocket fire. Qana has symbolic importance because Israeli shells killed many civilians there in a similar incident 10 years before. The deaths last year created a furor, and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon asked Rice to cancel her trip to Beirut. The war went on for almost two more weeks.

Olmert said he should have met with his security Cabinet more frequently. "I'm assuming I, too, made mistakes," he said. "I say at the central junctures at which decisions were made, we acted responsibly and I believe very reasonably."

In its partial report, the commission was harsh in its judgments of Olmert, Peretz and Halutz. Olmert has said he will not resign but will try to fix the flaws.

"I think the army disappointed itself not a little," Olmert said in the testimony.

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