What sounded last weekend like the threatening roar of an approaching earthquake ended midweek in a whimper. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert emerged victorious from the present round. A surprising coalition of politicians, legal experts and senior officers united against State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and blocked him last Tuesday from releasing the main points of his highly critical report on the performance of the home front. Fans of political drama will not have to wait long, however. The interim report of the Winograd Committee examining the war in Lebanon is slated for release by the end of the month, by which time procedural reasons to stem the tide will be hard to come by. In the end, Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz bought themselves only a little time. The outburst of open hostility between the two in Tuesday's cabinet meeting, immediately after the prime minister's temporary victory over the state comptroller, attests to their awareness of this fact.
Unfortunately for him, the chief of the Home Front Command (HFC), Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, was caught in the crossfire. Gershon is justified in fearing that he may be one of the main casualties of the comptroller's report. He was summoned three times to testify before Lindenstrauss' people, who asked him some tough questions. And if it is agreed that the performance of the Home Front during the war was disastrous, it is clear that the head of the branch is likely to be a target of the report. When the idea arose in the Military Advocate General's Office of petitioning against the discussion in the Knesset State Control Committee (where the comptroller planned to present the main points of the report), officials looked for a senior officer whose name could be added as a petitioner. Gershon agreed, partly because the jurists explained that this would help officers who could be harmed by the report, many of whom are his subordinates. "I'm responsible for the deeds of my people. I'm the address, as long as nobody acted with malice or did something criminal," Gershon said this week in conversations with his subordinates.
The argument - according to which those liable to be harmed were not given a fair chance to defend themselves before the release of the main points - convinced even the attorney general, the Knesset legal adviser and to some extent the High Court of Justice as well, which imposed restrictions on the deliberations in the committee and crippled the comptroller's plan. Gershon was complimented this week by colleagues on the General Staff for his willingness to pitch in, but in fact some of his close associates suggested that he refrain from filing the petition and even after the fact believed it was a mistake.
Gershon's action helped Olmert and the Israel Defense Forces, but not necessarily Gershon himself. Some people who spoke with him this week had the impression that he is having some regrets, that maybe he was too naive in agreeing to the petition, which works to the benefit of forces greater than he. It may really not be such a great source of pride to be the first IDF general to submit a petition against a state authority. The new chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, surprised the senior officers by not preventing Gershon and the IDF from becoming involved in the legal-political imbroglio. At least one of his predecessors in the job says that had he been in Ashkenazi's place, he would have forbidden the filing of the petition, with all due respect to the sacred autonomy of the Military Advocate General.
Before the Lebanon war Gershon, whose record includes a successful period as commander of IDF forces in the West Bank at the height of the second intifada, was thought to be on the shortlist to become the next head of the Central Command. Since the war his chances have decreased. After all, the report will be published despite the delaying tactics, and the HFC is responsible for some of the failures. This may be somewhat unfair, since the HFC at least demonstrated initiative, resourcefulness and good will during the war, in the face of the impotence demonstrated by many of the local authorities and rescue organizations. Moreover, soon after assuming the HFC command, Gershon became the first person to call for the creation of a national body to coordinate the handling of the home front and to declare that the HFC did not have the powers needed to fill that role.
Herein lies part of the problem: The job of HFC chief is usually considered a stepping stone to loftier positions. Unlike the other area commands (Northern, Central, Southern), however, the Home Front is an area of special expertise to which the army usually sends new generals with no experience in the field. This does not prevent every new general in the command from trying to reinvent the wheel within a few months of his arrival, only to have his successor do the same thing.
If Gershon is ambivalent about the results of the legal confrontation this week, in the case of Lindenstrauss the score is clear: In this round the comptroller was defeated. He played into the hands of the prime minister, who managed to plant a reasonable doubt among broad sections of the media and the public regarding any statement by Lindenstrauss, claiming that the comptroller has it in for him personally. Nor did the comptroller's publicity-hunting help.
An interesting question came up this week regarding the uncharacteristic silence of Amir Peretz in this affair. Did the defense minister leave the field to the prime minister and the head of the HFC because they did his work for him? Peretz disappeared from the public discussion about the home front, although he is certainly as least as responsible for the failures as are Olmert, former chief of staff Dan Halutz or Gershon.
It is doubtful whether the comptroller's tactical errors will blunt the impression left by his conclusions, the publication of which has been postponed. The more time passes since the war, the more difficult it is for the government to sell its version of events. Israel's few achievements in the campaign are gradually being eroded: Hezbollah, which had been pushed back from the border, is now rearming itself undisturbed. The deployment of the international force along the border (which is taking almost no action against the weapons stockpiles of the Shi'ite organization) is balanced out by Hezbollah's success in actively threatening the stability of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. In early August, at the beginning of the war, Olmert could still speak of a "great victory" for Israel. In September, after it ended, then chief of staff Dan Halutz still claimed that "we won on points." Today, almost nobody is speaking in such terms.
Stepping into the vacuum
The same is true of the home front. The 600 pages of the comptroller's report will present in-depth analyses and recommendations for change, but anyone who spent time in the North during the war already knows the bottom line. When the home front became the front line, the country abandoned the region's residents. Voluntary organizations stepped into the vacuum left behind by government ministries and some of the local councils. Billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak assessed the situation in a more organized manner than the government did, and apparently offered more assistance to residents as well. Most of those who were able to do so fled the affected areas in the first two weeks. Those who remained in the line of fire were mainly those who had no choice: the ill, the poor, the new immigrants.
A senior civil servant who spent most of the war traveling among the bomb shelters reported feeling "tremendous shame. It was a disgrace. There was great chaos and the government was not sufficiently in evidence. I quickly learned that the situation depended mainly on the ability of the local council. Strong municipalities like Haifa and Carmiel functioned well. In Kiryat Shmona and Safed, the situation was absolutely terrible." Do any of us still need the comptroller in order to know that these words reflect the true picture of the situation? The claim made by Olmert to the effect that the London blitz was worse is simply irrelevant.
Three former judges who served concurrently as district court presidents are writing the three main documents of the recent period: the Zeiler report, the Lindenstrauss report, the Winograd report. The first two have already been sharply criticized for their sweeping conclusions, an absence of judicial balance, the overenthusiastic response to the wooing of the media. And yet there is something very symbolic in this process - as though it took three representatives of another, older generation to clarify to the present-day office holders the seriousness of the breakdown in the performance of official bodies.