JERUSALEM – The head of the panel investigating Israel's 2006 Lebanon conflict said Wednesday that the war ended without victory and the army did not provide an effective response to Hezbollah rocket fire.
Eliyahu Winograd, the retired judge who led the investigation, told a packed auditorium in Jerusalem investigators found "failures and shortcomings" in the country's political and military leadership during the conflict.
Nevertheless, both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz, acted in "what they thought at the time was Israel's interest," he concluded.
"The overall image of the war was a result of a mixture of flawed conduct of the political and military leadership ... of flawed performance by the military, especially the ground forces, and of deficient Israeli preparedness," Winograd said. "We found serious failings and flaws in the lack of strategic thinking and planning."
The highly anticipated report, issued after a 16-month investigation, stopped short of holding Olmert personally responsible for the war's failures. That was a small boost as the prime minister moves forward with peace talks with the Palestinians.
A harsh indictment could have threatened his government and his stated goal of reaching a peace agreement this year. Olmert aides acknowledged they were relieved.
Winograd said the committee had decided not to assign personal blame for the war's shortcomings, preferring instead to search for ways to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
"It should be stressed that the fact we refrained from imposing personal responsibility does not imply that no such responsibility exists," he said.
Winograd said a last-minute ground offensive in Lebanon failed because it did not improve Israel's position ahead of a cease-fire and added the army was not prepared for that battle.
More than 30 Israeli soldiers were killed in that offensive launched shortly before a U.N.-brokered truce went into effect. Olmert had come under severe criticism for ordering the battle, despite his contention that the offensive improved Israel's position before the cease-fire.
Officials in Olmert's office said they were optimistic after a preliminary glimpse of the 629-page report. Olmert's spokesman, Jacob Galanty, was quoted by Israel TV as saying the prime minister's office was "breathing a sigh of relief."
Olmert's office said he had begun reading the report and would carefully study its conclusions.
Hezbollah lawmaker Hussein Haj Hassan told The Associated Press that the report underlined the Islamic militant group's victory.
"The Winograd report is an acknowledgment of Israel's responsibility for the war and its defeat," he said.
The war erupted on July 12, 2006, when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two who have not been seen or heard from since.
Olmert entered the war with broad support from the Israeli public. But his popularity plunged after the campaign failed to achieve his two declared goals — winning the soldiers' release and crushing Hezbollah.
Despite a heavy Israeli aerial campaign, the guerrilla group rained nearly 4,000 rockets on northern Israel. Israeli reservists returning from the battlefield complained of poor training and a lack of ammunition and key supplies.
Between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants were killed in the war, as were 119 Israeli soldiers and 40 civilians, according to official figures from the two sides.
Most of the army's wartime commanders, including the chief of staff and defense minister at the time, have already resigned so the big question about the report was how Olmert would fare.
A harsh interim report released in April by the panel accused the prime minister of "severe failures" and hasty decisions at the beginning of the war. Wednesday's report dealt with the war's final 28 days.
Olmert was able to beat back calls for his resignation after the interim report.
Opposition lawmakers, both from dovish supporters of peace talks to hardline critics, reiterated calls for Olmert to resign.
"The report paints a very dark picture of Israel and what happened in the army and the government and what happened between the army and the government," said Yossi Beilin, a prominent dovish lawmaker. "This should not have happened, and the man who is responsible cannot continue in his job."
Olmert has repeatedly said he would not step down.