Nine months after the end of Israel’s war in Lebanon comes the Winograd Commission’s interim report — and it is being used to put a gun to the head of the wrong person.
The Winograd report ignores the plain fact that the war ended in a victory of sorts; how else to explain why the Israeli-Lebanese border will soon have enjoyed its longest period of quiet in 40 years? To be sure, there were failings in the handling of the war, but they should not be allowed to obscure the main point: Hezbollah’s will to renew the fight has been broken for the time being, and as Olmert promised the situation in the north is now completely different.
The Winograd report effectively makes three major claims. First, having withdrawn from Lebanon in 2000, the Israeli military rested on its dubious laurels, failing to prepare properly for war in that theater and, perhaps, in any theater. Second, in his decision to launch the campaign against Hezbollah, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acted hastily, without adequate consideration and without looking far enough into the future. Third, having decided to go to war but fearful of a major engagement, the government did not order the military to mobilize reserves, did not think out things through to the end, and acted slowly and ponderously.
The reality, however, is far more complex.
The policy of maintaining quiet along the Lebanese border, even in the face of Hezbollah provocations, was initiated not by Olmert but by his two predecessors as prime minister, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak. And it was supported not just by Defense Minister Amir Peretz but by his predecessors, the supposedly much more capable Shaul Mofaz and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Furthermore, the policy was supported by both the Knesset and the Israeli public, which was preoccupied first with fighting the second Palestinian intifada and then with enjoying the economic boom that started in 2005.
Blaming it solely on the prime minister — and the amateurish Peretz, though he is Olmert’s main associate, hardly counts as a fall guy — is worse than a crime. It is an error, a blinding one that may prevent necessary changes from being made.
As for whether Olmert acted hastily, the decision to go to war was not premeditated. It was taken following a sudden hostile act by Hezbollah that killed eight Israelis and captured two. The decision had to be made quickly, or not at all.
War and international relations are conducted in a fluid environment, and anyone who thinks decisions can be taken with full consideration of all the possible consequences is living in cuckoo land. At the time Olmert decided to go to war, he did not have the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, he was being pushed from the rear both by public opinion and by many of his fellow Knesset members — including more than a few of those now demanding the prime minister’s resignation.
The Winograd Commission was most on target in charging the government with reacting slowly and ponderously. But it failed to note that fear of casualties — which accounts for the failure to quickly mobilize the reserves and for the hesitant way operations were conducted — was widely shared at all levels of the public, and had been a cardinal factor in Israeli policy since at least the time Lebanon was invaded back in 1982. Furthermore, the main opponent of a ground war was neither Olmert nor Peretz, but the Israeli military’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz.
During the first few days of last year’s war, the Israeli air force brilliantly solved the problem that stymied the Americans in Iraq in 1991 — namely, locating and eliminating the enemy’s mobile missile-launchers. But in keeping with his air force background, Halutz planned to conduct the campaign from the air alone, so when Hezbollah kept on firing short-range Katyusha rockets into the Galilee, he had no alternative ready other than dropping more and more bombs. Halutz opposed calling up the reserves, and Olmert had little choice but to rely on his top general.
Since guerrillas seldom offer lucrative targets to airpower, the outcome was that an estimated 97% of bombs and missiles missed their mark. Meanwhile, even as the air force was wasting its precious ammunition on nothing at all, one of the navy’s officers switched off his ship’s electronic defenses without telling his superior. He thus enabled a Hezbollah missile to hit the ship, almost causing it to sink. After that experience, the navy, apart from blockading the Lebanese coast, took no further part in the war.
Things on the ground were even worse. Many orders issued by the general staff were complicated and contradictory. Commanders wasted hours, days even, talking to each other and to the media, apparently without being aware that Hezbollah was listening in on their conversations.
Unbelievable as it may be, at the outbreak of the war the entire Israeli military could not claim a single officer who had ever commanded as much as a division in battle, and very few who had done so even as part of an exercise. Intelligence was lacking, and the logistics system did not bring up supplies when and where they were needed. Reservists, while willing, were short of equipment and training. And the Home Command, which was supposed to look after the rear area, miserably failed in carrying out its task.
For these and other failings, Olmert must bear overall responsibility. Still, they took place at levels far beneath his own. Ignoring Peretz, whose days as defense minister are numbered, the man primarily responsible is Halutz. He is gone, as are two of his principal subordinates.
The main point now is not to start playing a game of musical chairs at the top. Instead, it is to learn the necessary lessons and start making the necessary repairs. The process was started by Halutz himself, and is now being pushed by his successor, General Gabi Ashkenazi.
Ashkenazi has neither Halutz’s charisma nor his panache. He is an infantryman: unspectacular, serious-minded and methodical. Given how badly the Israeli military performed in Lebanon last year, he must be allowed to do what has to be done before the next round breaks out — or else Israel may yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of “The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq” (Presidio Press).