JERUSALEM (AP) – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert emerged relatively unscathed from the final report Wednesday on his handling of Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon, even though the inquiry criticized both the government and the army for "serious failings and flaws."
The report stopped short of blaming Olmert personally for what many Israelis saw as a stunning debacle that emboldened the Jewish state's enemies. A harsher indictment could have threatened Olmert's rule and his stated goal of signing a peace treaty with the Palestinians within a year.
The head of a five-member investigative panel, retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, described a U.N.-brokered cease-fire as an "achievement for Israel." And he said Olmert, in ordering a last-minute ground offensive, acted "out of a strong and sincere perception" of what the prime minister thought was "Israel's interest."
The final report stood in sharp contrast to a strongly worded interim report last April, which criticized Olmert personally for "severe failure" in "hastily" going to war.
The war erupted on July 12, 2006, when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others.
Olmert entered the conflict with enormous support from the Israeli public, but his popularity plunged after the campaign failed to achieve his declared goals — winning the soldiers' release and crushing Hezbollah. The two soldiers have still not been heard from.
The 629-page report was delivered to Olmert an hour before it was made public at a news conference, and the prime minister's office was "breathing a sigh of relief," Olmert's spokesman, Jacob Galanty, was quoted as saying.
In a statement, Olmert's office said he had begun reading the report and would study its conclusions.
"The prime minister relates to the final report of the Winograd commission … with full seriousness," the statement said.
Hussein Haj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of Lebanon's parliament, told The Associated Press that the report underlined Hezbollah's victory. "The Winograd report is an acknowledgment of Israel's responsibility for the war and its defeat," he said.
Despite calls for his resignation from political opponents, the conventional wisdom was that Olmert would weather the inquiry's findings — a comfort to those who are relying on him to pursue a U.S.-sponsored peace push with the Palestinians after seven years of bloodshed.
"I think that Olmert has a good chance to survive the report, but that still can change," said Tamir Sheafer, professor of politics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "Olmert will not resign, that's for sure."
The commission did not pull punches in describing the failures of Olmert's government during the 34-day conflict that, according to official figures from both sides, killed between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants, in addition to 119 Israeli soldiers and 40 civilians.
Winograd told a packed news conference in Jerusalem that Israel did not win the war and the army did not provide an effective response to a sustained, deadly barrage of rocket fire from Hezbollah guerrillas.
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.
"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," the 81-year-old Winograd said. "We found serious failings and flaws in the lack of strategic thinking and planning."
Winograd said the committee had decided not to assign personal blame for the war's shortcomings, preferring 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.
A large section of the report was devoted to the last-minute offensive that stirred controversy because it was ordered just as the U.N. truce was about to take effect. More than 30 Israeli soldiers were killed in that fighting.
Winograd said the 11th-hour offensive "failed" in its mission, did not improve Israel's position and that the army was not prepared for it.
However, he said the operation's goals were legitimate. "There was no failure in that decision in itself, despite its limited achievements and its painful costs." Winograd said both Olmert and his then-defense minister, Amir Peretz, acted in "what they thought at the time was Israel's interest."
Since most of the army's wartime commanders, including Peretz and the chief of staff at the time, have resigned, the big mystery Wednesday was how Olmert would fare.
The prime minister was able to beat back calls for his resignation after the interim report was released. This time, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, the former prime minister who now serves as defense minister, is under pressure to deliver on his promise to push for Olmert's resignation or advance elections.
If Barak pulls Labor's 19-member faction out of the coalition, Olmert will no longer have a parliamentary majority and could be forced to call an election. His coalition now controls 67 of parliament's 120 seats.
Polls show Olmert trailing far behind Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hawkish Likud Party. A Netanyahu victory would bode poorly for President Bush's goal of brokering a Mideast peace accord before leaving office next January.
Opposition lawmakers, from dovish supporters of peace talks to hard-line critics, insisted Olmert must go.
"The report paints a very dark picture," said Yossi Beilin, a dovish lawmaker. "This should not have happened and the man who is responsible cannot continue in his job."
Silvan Shalom, a Likud leader, called the report "an indictment of the gravest sort" and urged Olmert to "announce new elections, to go to the people and let the people say what they think."
Associated Press writers Matti Friedman, Aron Heller, Rory Kress and Josef Federman contributed to this report.