JERUSALEM – Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Wednesday created a committee to investigate Israel's conduct during the 34-day fight against Hezbollah guerrillas, senior defense officials said.
The committee, made up of business executives and retired generals, will be chaired by former army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. It also will look into the army's preparedness ahead of the fighting and is to present its preliminary finding within three weeks, the officials said.
The formation of the committee was a step toward addressing criticism over the handling of the conflict but fell short of meeting growing demands for the creation of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate both the government's and the military's performance.
Israel lost 118 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians in the conflict that began July 12, when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Reservists also complained of lack of essential equipment.
Civilians criticized the poor maintenance of bomb shelters and the failure of government agencies to get the right help swiftly to residents of northern Israel, where nearly 4,000 Katyusha rockets killed civilians, closed down businesses and many essential services and caused widespread damage.
Army Radio quoted Peretz as telling a meeting of generals Wednesday that setting up the committee did not imply any criticism of the military but was a "professional examination to learn the lessons and draw conclusions."
Besides Lipkin-Shahak, it will include former air force chief Herzl Bodinger, former defense ministry head Ilan Biran and Eli Hurvitz, chairman of Israel-based pharmaceutical giant Teva.
Newspapers and radio shows were filled with outrage over army chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz's decision to sell off his stock portfolio just hours before launching Israel's biggest military operation since its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Halutz declared himself a victim of malicious reporting, saying he has been turned "into a Shylock."
The 34-day war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, widely seen here as just, had united Israel's fractured society. Hezbollah was considered a growing threat after it had vastly expanded its arsenal of missiles in recent years.
But the unity crumbled after Israel's fabled army pulled out of south Lebanon without crushing Hezbollah or rescuing two soldiers whose July 12 capture by the guerillas during a raid in Israel triggered the fighting.
The war began just two months after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Peretz, men with little military experience, took office. Surveys in two major Hebrew-language dailies on Wednesday showed low approval ratings for both.
A poll of 500 people by TNS-Teleseker showed support for Olmert sinking to 40 percent after soaring to 78 percent in the first two weeks of the offensive.
Peretz' approval rating plunged to 28 percent from 61 percent, according to the poll, which has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. A second poll, by the Dahaf Research Institute, showed 57 percent calling for his resignation.
The Dahaf poll, which had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points, showed 70 percent opposed to a cease-fire that did not include the return of the captured soldiers, and 69 percent backing an official inquiry into the war's prosecution.
Under the truce, Israel is to withdraw from southern Lebanon, and 15,000 Lebanese army forces, backed by a similar number of U.N. peacekeepers, are to patrol the territory, which had been controlled by Hezbollah before the war. Critics of the truce question the ability of the new force to keep Hezbollah at bay.
Halutz's wartime decisions did not score him many points with the public: Fifty-two percent of those polled by TNS and 47 percent of those surveyed by Dahaf said they were dissatisfied with his handling of the fighting.
Politicians and military commanders called for his resignation after a newspaper reported he sold his stock portfolio just before the fighting began. Halutz has acknowledged selling about $28,000 worth of stocks at noon July 12, three hours after Hezbollah launched the cross-border raid that touched off the war.
He has expressed no regret over the timing of the sale, saying he has finances to manage like any other Israeli.
"They've turned me into Shylock," he told the Yediot Ahronot daily, referring to Shakespeare's despised Jewish "Merchant of Venice."
Also being criticized is Halutz's decision to rely heavily on airstrikes in the first phase of the war. In another controversial decision, a massive ground offensive was ordered just as a cease-fire deal was within reach. More than 30 Israeli soldiers died after the U.N. Security Council had already approved the truce deal.
The government has said its final push deep into Lebanon was necessary to maximize gains against Hezbollah before the cease-fire went into effect.
One of the last casualties was Staff Sgt. Uri Grossman, the son of internationally acclaimed novelist David Grossman. The elder Grossman supported the war, but two days before his son was killed he condemned the last-ditch campaign as dangerous and counterproductive.
"I won't say anything now about the war in which you were killed," Grossman said in his eulogy to his son. "We, your family, have already lost in this war."