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Command failed in war, Olmert says

The embattled premier had praise, however, for combat forces, just-released testimony shows.

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told an inquiry the army command did not perform well in last summer's war in Lebanon and acknowledged he gave short shrift to warnings that troops weren't ready, but he insisted Israel had no option except to fight, according to testimony released yesterday.

Olmert's comments were made during hearings by a special commission that issued a report last week severely censuring the prime minister's wartime performance, an appraisal that triggered a wave of resignation calls and may yet cost him his political career.

The war started July 12, when Hezbollah guerrillas staged a border raid in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured and taken into Lebanon. Israel launched a full-scale military campaign hours later.

Initially strong Israeli public support unraveled after the 34-day war failed to achieve Olmert's two declared aims - recovering the two soldiers and crushing Hezbollah, which bombarded northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets during the fighting.

In his testimony, Olmert made a pointed distinction between Israel's combat forces, which he praised as "exceptional," and the military command, which he said "seriously let itself down."

"Something in the conception of how they operated the forces, something in the conception of their control over the forces, something wasn't what we expected, unfortunately, and that no doubt led to the disparity between what we are capable of doing and what we actually achieved," he said.

Olmert acknowledged that senior security officials told him troops hadn't conducted military exercises along the Lebanese border. But he said he "didn't really pay much attention" because the defense establishment "always" complains it is short of funds for training.

The 89 pages of testimony were released 10 days after the commission issued its scathing report on Olmert's handling of the war's first six days. A final report on the full war is due this summer.

In questioning Olmert, commission members repeatedly implied he made decisions without seriously exploring alternatives or digging deeper for information.

Asked whether he displayed any skepticism about what the military told him, Olmert didn't offer evidence to support independent thinking. Instead, in a meandering and oblique reply, he said that as prime minister, he had to "apply another perspective that they [military commanders] don't have and can't have."

At the end of his testimony, Olmert acknowledged making mistakes. He said, for example, that he might have met more often with senior cabinet ministers to consult on diplomacy. But he quickly added, "At the key junctures where decisions were made, we acted responsibly, and in my opinion, very reasonably."

Olmert told the panel he was convinced Hezbollah would fire rockets into Israel's northern communities - as it did - and said he had two options after the border raid: Do nothing or put the military into motion quickly.

"I don't think there was any option but to act from the very first," he told the commission.

Olmert's office said late yesterday that he wanted to testify before the commission again, to counter a statement from his foreign minister and political rival, Tzipi Livni, that the day after the Hezbollah raid, she recommended a diplomatic solution instead of a large-scale military operation.

The censored testimonies of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the wartime military chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, were also published Thursday.

Peretz testified that at a meeting with Halutz and other defense chiefs to discuss the Hezbollah raid, "the prevailing opinion was that . . . we could not pursue a policy of restraint under the circumstances."

He told the panel that leadership had expected the war to last 10 to 14 days.

In his heavily censored testimony, Halutz told the committee that the army's greatest failure was its inability to bring the war to a swifter conclusion.

"Without a doubt, I recognize that at the end of the day that was the most blatant non-achievement or failure," he said.

Halutz resigned in January after widespread criticism of his performance during the war.

Peace Plan Discussed

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday in the first formal discussions of

a recently revived pan-Arab initiative to start talks on Middle East peace.

Livni also lunched with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdel Ilah al-Khatib.

The 22-member Arab

League designated Egypt and Jordan to persuade Israel to negotiate with Palestinians over a future Palestinian state.

In a news conference in Cairo, Livni described her talks with Mubarak as "not only an important but a historic meeting." She said the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers would travel to Jerusalem for further talks, though she didn't say when.

The Arab Initiative, launched in 2002 and revived in March, echoes the land-for-peace formula that was the bedrock of Israeli-Arab negotiations that got under way in 1991 in Madrid, Spain. Under the formula, Israel would cede territory won in the 1967 Middle East war in return for recognition and peace agreements with its neighbors, the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.

- Bloomberg News

Factional Fighting in Gaza

Clashes between rival Hamas and Fatah forces erupted yesterday in the central

Gaza Strip.

Palestinian medical officials said one person was wounded - and four were kidnapped and then released - in the fighting in the Nusseirat refugee camp.

The fighting came as Palestinian officials moved forward with the start of the security plan aimed at restoring law and order in the chaotic Gaza Strip.

An estimated 3,000 police fanned out in Gaza City, taking up positions at main intersections and government buildings. The police were not stationed in the area of the gun battle.

Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the area has experienced a wave of infighting, armed robberies, deadly family feuds and kidnappings.

- Associated PressEndText