Israel’s Tough Medicine

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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Watching the uproar in Jerusalem this week, following the release of the Winograd report on the conduct of last year’s Lebanon War, friends of Israel must be gripped with profound feelings of sadness and alarm — sadness at the degraded state of public leadership in the Jewish state, and alarm at the report’s gloomy depiction of military readiness and strategic decision-making in a country beset by enemies.

The report, the harshest ever by an Israeli postwar commission of inquiry, lays out a long chain of missteps leading up to last summer’s military-diplomatic standoff. It describes a six-year series, going back to Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, of missed cues, sloppy thinking, miscommunication and outright arrogance. All of these helped lead Israel to launch a war for which it wasn’t ready, chasing ill-defined goals that probably weren’t achievable, relying on an army that was trained for the wrong war.

The report’s most damning findings are, as Gershom Gorenberg reports on Page A14, its least surprising: that Israel’s prime minister, defense minister and military chief of staff were supremely unqualified — individually and as a team — to plan, launch or lead a war. Of the three, the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, stepped down last January, and the defense minister, Amir Peretz, will be gone in a few weeks, thanks to internal Labor Party politics.

That leaves the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, whose fate is now the subject of furious debate. In the days and weeks ahead, those who follow Israeli affairs will be subjected to a deafening chorus of calls for Olmert’s resignation. We will hear, in endless theme and variation, that the Winograd report has utterly discredited Olmert and everything he stands for, that Israel had been left weakened by years of craven politicians too afraid to fight, that the army was not permitted to do its job.

Israelis will decide in the coming days if they’re going to let Olmert keep his job. As for those of us watching from afar, we would do best to use caution in interpreting the Winograd report. Those who haven’t read the full text in Hebrew, and must take their cues from press reports, may have gotten some glaring misimpressions about what is and isn’t in it.

For starters, the report offers no judgments on Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 — nor, by extension, on any other Israeli withdrawals, unilateral or otherwise. The Lebanon pullout brought Israel important strategic advantages as well as disadvantages, as the report details at length. The major disadvantage was the military buildup by Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border. Israel’s brass should have watched that development closely, discussed it in depth and developed effective counter-measures, the report says. It did none of these.

Nor does the report depict Israel’s leadership as reluctant to fight. If anything, the political class is seen as too quick to rely on firepower to solve problems, without thinking through the longer-term strategic and diplomatic implications of its decisions.

That, in fact, is Judge Winograd’s most urgent message: thoughtful, systematic decision-making in place of shooting from the hip. Greater involvement of diplomats in the creation of security policy — keeping in mind that war is an extension of diplomacy, not an end in itself. There are limits to the usefulness of force. Israel, the report says, has overlooked that truth, to its peril.

To his credit, Olmert has begun acting on the report’s most urgent recommendations, appointing a task force under the respected ex-chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak to implement new structures. Whether Olmert can save his own job seems far-fetched, but the system is wise to move with caution. The most obvious replacement waiting in the wings, a Likud coalition under Benjamin Netanyahu, could embody the very sort of trigger-happiness that Judge Winograd warns against.

For all the alarm and sadness, it’s hard not to feel a certain envy at the vigor and resilience of Israeli democracy this week. Just consider the facts so far: A country finds itself led by inept, arrogant leaders into a poorly-thought-out war against an enemy that it misunderstood and underestimated, fighting for ill-defined and largely unachievable goals with an army that was unprepared and under-equipped. It ends up fought to a standstill by a ragtag band of insurgents, its military demoralized and its international standing in tatters. So what happens next?

Well, if the country happens to be Israel, a commission of inquiry is appointed and gets to work examining how the country got itself into that mess. It takes a long, unblinkered look at the military, diplomatic and political assumptions leading up to the war, probes the state of the military and examines the nature of the government’s own decision making processes — up to and including the personalities and qualifications for office of the top leadership. The report, though non-binding, is promptly taken to heart by all sides and becomes the new standard. Then the public takes over.

In some other countries — and we can think of one or two — the poorly-thought-out, unwinnable war just goes on and on and none of the inept, arrogant architects is ever held to account. On balance, Israel doesn’t look that bad.

Editor’s Note: For an English-language summary of the Winograd report, click here. To download the full report in Hebrew, click here (PDF).

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