There are some important points missing in the Winograd commission’s discussion of the sources of last summer’s war against Hezbollah and the poor decision-making and warfighting capabilities Israel demonstrated. Failure to address three in particular — prisoners, Iran and 40 years of occupation — could help pave the way for new aggression against Israel.
Last summer’s war began with the abduction of Israeli soldiers on two fronts, Gaza and Lebanon. The abductors, Hamas and Hezbollah, sought to acquire bargaining chips for negotiations with Israel over the release of Palestinians and Lebanese in Israeli prisons. Those negotiations are still underway, and Israel can be expected to free around 1,000 prisoners in order to get back its three soldiers, not all of whom may be alive.
The abductions took place because, short of making peace with Israel, there was no other way for extremist Palestinians and Lebanese to free their prisoners. The sentences meted out to terrorists by Israeli civil and military courts are very heavy: While an Israeli murderer with a life sentence can expect to be out in 20 years and will enjoy occasional weekend leaves outside prison gates after about year eight of his or her sentence, a Palestinian terrorist murderer has no expectation of ever leaving Israeli prison alive unless he or she is part of a prisoner exchange.
At the top of the list of prisoners whose release Hamas currently demands as part of an exchange are old men in fragile health who were imprisoned for terrorist acts before the Oslo accords of 1993 and are folk heroes on the Arab street.
In other words, Israeli punishment policy against terrorists encourages abduction attempts, which in turn deteriorate into war. True, release of younger terrorist prisoners is liable to return them to the circle of anti-Israel violence. But this risk is at least partially balanced by the confidence-building effect of prisoner release and its potential to prevent wars like the last one.
While most of these prisoners deserve life sentences and Israeli public opinion is very sensitive on this issue, the Winograd report should at least have recommended an inquiry into this aspect of last summer’s conflict.
Secondly, in the report’s detailed description of the first five days of the war, including intelligence briefings regarding the enemy north of the border, Iran is only mentioned once, on day four. This is startling.
Hezbollah deputy head Naim Kassem recently acknowledged that his movement never takes military action without the approval of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Last July, Israeli strategic experts were quick to label Hezbollah the “long arm” or commando brigade of Iran. This is what gave the war its broad regional strategic dimension and caused moderate Arab states quietly to support Israel.
If Iran is missing from the Winograd report because its role wasn’t really discussed by the Olmert government, then we have a dangerous indication of collective ignorance at the strategic level. Today, Iran and its Hezbollah proxy and Syrian ally are watching Israel’s post-Winograd behavior closely.
They are almost certain to interpret the report’s detailed description of lack of readiness to fight, failure to weigh all the options and ignorance of the Iranian dimension — coupled with the refusal to resign by the leader responsible, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — as a sign of collective Israeli weakness. (Only a select few Arab commentators and virtually no Iranians understand Winograd as a reflection of Israel’s inherent strengths.)
Hamas, heavily influenced by Iran and Hezbollah, may well draw the same conclusion. This could mean the next war is closer than we think.
Finally, the Winograd report never comes to grips with the devastating effect on Israeli military readiness and motivation of 40 years of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and particularly six years of fighting the second intifada. By the time war broke out in Lebanon on July 12, 2006, Israeli ground forces in the Palestinian territories had been functioning as little more than a glorified gendarmerie, skilled at moving into the Nablus casbah to arrest or kill a terrorist suspect but dangerously unpracticed at the kind of ground warfare required in southern Lebanon.
The report comes close when it notes that “After 25 years without a war, the IDF was not ready… part of the political and military echelon had formulated the view that the era of wars was over…. That Israel and the IDF had sufficient deterrence to prevent a real war being declared against [them]…. That the army’s challenges would be mainly those of dealing with extended low-intensity conflicts.”
The Winograd report levels more than 100 well-earned accusations of “failure” against the prime minister. It concludes with a series of admirable recommendations for reorganizing the government’s decision-making structure, yet it never states plainly what seems so obvious: that an army employed for years on end in hapless and never-ending occupation tasks becomes run-down, demoralized and under-trained; that in preparing the military for more wars in the north, the occupation of large parts of the West Bank must be recognized as an obstacle; that as long as that occupation continues, our enemies will be more tempted than ever to launch new war-like provocations, because our deterrent profile will seem so low.
This is not to suggest that the occupation can easily be ended — certainly there is little chance of a viable political solution with the Palestinians in the near future, and as we’ve seen, unilateral withdrawal provoked Hamas’s attacks. Nor, for that matter, can the current or next prime minister even begin to change Israel’s policy regarding terrorist prisoners until our three abducted soldiers are back.
But as Israel’s politicians and opinion-makers debate the Winograd recommendations and the wisdom of leaving the current prime minister in place, they would do well to consider the need for the country to project a very different image — very quickly — in order to deny our enemies yet another temptation to attack us.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.