JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told an investigative panel that the Israeli military "seriously let itself down" in last summer's war in Lebanon, according to censored minutes of his testimony released on Thursday.
But Olmert tried to deflect the commission's suggestions that he acted rashly and on the basis of sketchy information.
The 89 pages of testimony were released 10 days after the commission issued a damning appraisal of his handling of the initial stage of the war. The especially harsh censure of Olmert has prompted renewed calls for his resignation and cast a cloud over his political future.
Although he has survived the initial uproar over the report, it is not clear whether he can keep his coalition together under his leadership. A final report on the 34-day war is due out in the summer.
The war started July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas carried out a July 12 cross-border raid in which three soldiers were killed and two were captured.
The Israeli public backed Olmert throughout the war, but the support broke down after he failed to achieve his two declared aims — recovering the two soldiers and crushing Hezbollah, which in the course of the war bombarded Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets.
The minutes of Olmert's appearance before the war probe panel — censored by the military on security grounds — are studded with panel members' suggestions that Olmert took decisions without doing enough to explore alternatives or seek information beyond what the military told him.
Asked whether he displayed any skepticism about what the military told him, Olmert didn't reply directly with any examples of how he might have disputed that information. Instead, he told the commission's five members that in his position, 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 of his own, saying, for example, that he might have met more often with senior Cabinet ministers to consult with them on diplomacy.
Olmert told the panel he was convinced Hezbollah would send rockets thudding into Israel's northern communities — as it did — and that he had two options: do nothing or do something from the very first minute. "I don't think there was any option but to act from the very first," he told the commission.
When weighing his options, Olmert said, "In my mind's eye, I saw the new Lebanese morass closing in on us like the old one did" — a reference to Israel's 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon to eject Palestinian militants. That led to an 18-year military occupation of a strip of southern Lebanon.
While effusively praising the fighting forces as "exceptional," Olmert he said the military command "seriously let itself down" during the war.
"Something in the concept of how they operated the forces, something in the concept of their control over the forces, something wasn't what we expected, unfortunately, and that no doubt led to the gap between our abilities and what we achieved in practice."
Asked to address the breakdown of security on the border with Lebanon in July, Olmert acknowledged that senior security officials told him about a lack of military exercises in the area. But he said he "didn't really pay much attention" because the defense establishment "always" comes to budget deliberations saying it doesn't have enough money.
Olmert's office, commenting on the testimony, defended his wartime actions as "the necessary conclusion from a process of planning and consultation that Olmert has carried out" since taking over as prime minister in January 2006, following Ariel Sharon's incapacitating stroke.
Addressing commentators' criticisms that Olmert was trying to shift the blame to the army, the statement said, "the prime minister didn't fob off responsibility onto anyone or accuse anyone. ... At the same time, Olmert doesn't conceal there were failures; the military says that, too."
Israel Radio analyst Hanan Crystal said that after last week's devastating report, the new testimony would cause little additional damage to Olmert.
"If we thought that the interim report created a magnitude 8 or 9 earthquake this testimony is not going to cause further upheaval," Crystal said. "It won't be this that brings about Olmert's resignation."
The censored testimonies of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and wartime military chief Lt. Gen. Halutz were also published on Thursday.
Peretz told the panel Israel expected the war to last 10 to 14 days.
At a meeting with Halutz and other defense chiefs, "The prominent opinion was that ... we could not pursue a policy of restraint given the situation in which we found ourselves.
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, the Haaretz newspaper reported. "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 following widespread criticism of his performance during the war.
Peretz is expected to leave his post after this month's primary vote in his Labor Party. Opinion polls forecast Peretz will not win re-election as party chief.