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Olmert, Israeli Defense Minister Clash Over War Inquiry

Peretz's call for an outside panel is likely to cause tension within the governing coalition.

September 02, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz broke with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Friday by calling for an independent probe of their government's handling of the recent war in Lebanon -- their first serious disagreement since becoming coalition partners four months ago.

Olmert and Peretz have come under intense public criticism for the less-than-decisive outcome of the conflict, which ended Aug. 14 with a cease-fire after 34 days of fighting. The clash over the nature of an inquiry is sure to produce tension within the governing alliance led by Olmert and his centrist Kadima Party and could sow deeper divisions.

Peretz, who leads the left-leaning Labor Party, joined critics in his party in calling for an independent state commission to look into how Israel's leaders performed during the war. He had been under pressure to come out against Olmert's plan to name an ad hoc government panel that critics said would be too pliant.

A panel backed by Peretz would be headed by a judge and carry significant authority to conduct an investigation and recommend changes, including the dismissal of top-level officials. Such commissions have been named to review previous wartime controversies, including Israel's role in the massacres of Palestinians in Lebanon's Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in 1982.

Olmert's proposal appears likely to gain Cabinet approval, even though Peretz and several other Labor ministers are against it.

With public dissatisfaction high in Israel and protesters calling for the resignations of Olmert, Peretz and army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the shape of a future inquiry has become politically charged.

Critics accused Olmert of attempting a whitewash in proposing his own examination of the government's conduct, which would be led by a former chief of the Mossad spy agency.

Olmert, who has characterized the military campaign as a victory while conceding shortcomings, said a full-blown investigation by an independent state commission could take years and that Israel needed to make any needed reforms quickly.

Olmert said a separate panel would look into the army's role.

The effect of the disagreement on the coalition's future remains unclear. For now, the prime minister and Peretz share an interest in keeping it together.

Labor is Kadima's biggest partner; without it, Olmert would have to reach out to right-wing and religious parties to keep a parliamentary majority. Peretz, a former union leader, brought Labor into the alliance to press for territorial concessions in the West Bank and boost government spending for social welfare.

Peretz, who gained the defense minister's job despite lacking a military background, faces an array of dissenters within his party who have seized on lapses during the Lebanon conflict to step up challenges to his leadership. Israeli commentators said he might see a formal state inquiry as the best way to rescue himself.

His rivals in Labor have accused him of abandoning the party's emphasis on government help for the needy. A showdown over the national budget for next year could prove a more serious challenge to the alliance with Kadima.

Public support for Olmert and Peretz soared during the early days of the fighting but has plummeted since the war with Hezbollah militants stopped. Army reservists have staged protests, complaining that the army suffered from conflicting orders and a lack of basic equipment and water. Protesters have constructed a mock graveyard outside Olmert's offices, using cardboard cutouts to represent Israeli soldiers killed during the conflict.

There has been speculation in the Israeli media that Peretz might be shifted from the defense minister's job to another post, such as finance minister.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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