The conduct of last summer’s war in Lebanon struck most observers as incoherent. Only after 32 days of fighting, and with the U.N. Security Council already scheduled to vote on a ceasefire resolution, did Israel commence a large-scale ground operation. By then no time remained to achieve any of the objectives of a large-scale ground action. Over 30 soldiers – approximately a quarter of those lost in the fighting – were killed in those last two days of fighting.
Now comes the long-awaited interim report of the Winograd Commission and confirms that, in this case at least, appearances were not deceiving. The conduct of the war was incoherent.
The report, written in clear, detailed, and biting language, faults Prime Minister Olmert for opting for a large-scale war and declaring ambitious goals without first having received from the IDF a battle plan or evaluating whether those goals could be achieved. The prime minister is portrayed as having rushed ahead without adequate thought, and thereby thrusting Israel into a situation from which it was impossible to extricate itself, without making things even worse. He did not consider adequately the likely Hizbullah missile response and its impact on Israel.
The report’s evaluation of then chief-of-staff Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz is equally damning. He is accused of having failed to present the prime minister and cabinet with alternate plans of action, and of not informing the cabinet of the serious inadequacies in the preparation of the IDF for major combat in southern Lebanon. The only plan presented by Halutz – the first chief-of-staff to have come to the position via the air force – relied almost exclusively on Israel’s superior air power. Halutz was intoxicated with air power, with its capability to deliver great destructive power with little risk of incurring casualties, as the solution to most of the military threats to Israel. Thus he never sought an early mobilization of reserves so that they could be equipped and trained if a major ground operation were required.
The report further charges Halutz with not taking seriously enough warnings of a possible Hizbullah attempt to kidnap Israeli soldiers, and not ensuring that adequate precautions were taken against such an attempt.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz is treated by the report as a complete cipher, who knew or should have known that he was totally unqualified for the job when he took it, and having made little effort to make himself better informed in the months leading up to the war. "His lack of experience and knowledge," the report states, "prevented him from challenging in a competent way both the IDF, over which he was in charge," and from demanding from the IDF the "presentation of serious strategic options for discussion.
THE INITIAL discussion of the Commission’s findings has centered on the implications for Prime Minister Olmert and his chances of holding onto office. The first opinion poll published in the wake of the release of the interim report showed that he would be the first choice of 0% of the population for prime minister in the event of new elections. Nevertheless, it would be a serious mistake to view the report as solely, or even primarily, an indictment of the three figures in charge of running the military campaign.
As the Winograd Commission report states, "the shortcomings in the preparedness and training of the army, its operational doctrine, and the various flaws in its organizational culture and structure, were all the responsibility of the military commanders and political leaders in charge years before the present prime minister, defense minister, and chief of staff took office."
The situation which gave rise to the Second Lebanon War had been in the making for more than six years, ever since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. During that time, Israel was led by Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff and the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, and Ariel Sharon, a former general of near mythic stature. It was under their leadership that Hizbullah was permitted to build up its armory of over 15,000 katyushas.
And it was under their leadership that the IDF failed to develop any adequate defense doctrine for dealing with the Hizbullah threat, and that the cuts in defense spending and preparation were undertaken that contributed so heavily to the dismal outcome of last summer’s war. Professor Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, points to some of these cuts. From 2002 to 2006, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz scheduled a reduction in the length of military conscription and shortened reserve training duty. From 2001 to 2006, allocations for training reserve units were cut by $800 million.
Due to budgetary constraints, the IDF reduced the size of tank formations, and the Treasury pressured the IDF to discontinue production of its top-of-the-line Merkava tank, For the same reason, anti-missile systems were not deployed on most tanks (at great cost in lives in last summer’s fighting) and the air force did not receive bunker buster bombs. Only a handful of special forces received training for operations in southern Lebanon, and even those forces that were trained lacked updated intelligence on Hizbullah positions when they crossed the border.
Israeli leaders did not grasp the degree and nature of the Hizbullah threat, and for that reason did not allocate funds for the development of an adequate missile defense system against short-range missiles. Even though Israel’s defense industry had, in Inbar’s words, "mastered several technological response against short-range missiles, Israel refrained from turning them operational."
The policy of restraint from May 2000 until the outbreak of the war in July 2006, concludes the Winograd Commission report, came at a "substantial cost" in the face of the "unfettered" strengthening of Hizbullah. As early as August 2000, the current chief of staff and then OC of the Northern command Gabi Ashkenazi wrote to then chief of staff Mofaz, "Since our withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizbullah’s provocations are increasing, and this is damaging our security and deterrence, and could eventually lead to a serious deterioration in the situation." He warned that if a way was not found to apply pressure on Lebanon or a change made in the way, Israel reacts, "the situation will crystallize and turn into a reality with which we cannot live."
However poorly planned and executed last summer’s response to Hizbullah’s kidnapping of two soldiers, it was an improvement in the long run, over the meek response to Hizbullah’s kidnapping of three soldiers at Har Dov in October 2000, only a few months after withdrawal from Lebanon, and the equally tepid response to the murder of seven motorists on the Shlomi-Metzuba road by Hizbullah terrorists who infiltrated Israel from Lebanon.
THE WINOGRAD COMMISSION POINTED to numerous systemic failings in Israel’s governmental decision-making and planning. For too long, Israel has hidden its head in the sand from threats and dangers well-known, and relied on last minute improvisation, under the slogan, "y’hiyeh tov – it’ll be all right." Experts input has been largely absent from any governmental planning. The Winograd Commission pointed to lack of high quality staff work available to the political leadership.
Things are manifestly not all right. And those failures extend across a broad spectrum. Israel is fast running out of water, and that which is left in underground acquifiers is of an increasingly brackish, low quality. Yet ten years after the crisis was first identified by the State Comptroller, Israel had still not embarked on a serious desalinization program, and even today the number of such plants lags far behind the need. The country has double the world average of cars per square mile of paved roads, and yet has only recently begun to invest seriously in mass transit.
Without any significant natural resources or major industries, Israel’s economy depends on its position as a world leader in hi-tech. And that position, in turn, depends on the quality of the Israeli education system. Yet the educational system has been allowed to decline precipitously in recent decades. Once Israel ranked at the top of the world on cross-national tests in mathematics and reading comprehension; today it ranks towards the bottom of the industrialized world. And results continue to decline.
A former water commissioner when asked how the water system could have been reached its current state, replied, "How do you explain the fact that mass transportation has never developed in this country, or that the public health system is collapsing. . . . ? It’s the same thing."
One of the key problems is the hyper-politicization of government. Political considerations trump policy considerations almost every time. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed former chief of staff Moshe "Boogie" Yaalon, a year early, and appointed Dan Halutz in his place because Ya’alon questioned the wisdom of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and propriety of using the IDF for the task of evicting setters. Halutz, who had no such qualms, was hired to replace him. Similarly, Amir Peretz became defense minister because as leader of the second largest party in the governing coalition, he had to be given either the Treasury or the Defense Ministry, and Prime Minister Olmert felt (probably rightly) that he could do less damage as defense minister than as finance minister.
Even Olmert’s hasty decision to embark on a major military action without lining up his ducks likely had its roots in political considerations. He basically inherited the prime ministry from the much loved Ariel Sharon, a celebrated military hero. And he may have feared that acting with restraint would have served to highlight the differences between him and Sharon. (Even though Sharon’s greatest military feat was his daring, unauthorized crossing of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kipper War, as a political leader his greatest strength was his patience and lack of need to prove his toughness.)
General Giora Eiland, the national security advisor under Sharon and a former chief of army planning has harped in recent years on how the political instability of Israel’s coalition governments contributes to the poor quality of decision-making and lack of planning. Coalition politics leave the prime minister continually concerned with protecting his flacks. The defense minister and foreign minister are often political rivals of the prime minister, either from his own party or from other parties. As a consequence, rather than working with them as partners, the prime minister has a tendency to try to guard all relevant information for himself.
If the prime minister has to consult others, it is not usually with expert staff, like that of the national security council (a body the Winograd Commission said should be substantially upgraded) but with those who are personally loyal him, political allies, advertising executives, and spinmeisters.
No serious discussion takes place in the cabinet because that would involve sharing of information. Those meetings, says Eiland, are designed primarily to convey to the media, which is present at the beginning of each meeting, the idea that something is being done, even if no serious discussion takes place. The conduct of the Second Lebanon War, says Eiland, reveals how few mechanisms there are for probing discussion in the cabinet.
Zeev Schiff, Ha’aretz’s military correspondent points out that three-quarters of a year after the conclusion of the war, the government has still not succeeded in holding a comprehensive discussion of Israel’s defense outlook. Discussion of the Meridor Report on national defense doctrine, prepared over a period of a year-and-a-half, has been pushed aside time and again.
AND FINALLY, THE COMMISSION HAD HARSH WORDS for a large swath of Israel’s political and military elites, whose assumptions led to the mistaken belief that the IDF and homefront had no need to prepare for a "real" war. Among those faulty assumptions, the Commission listed: the belief that "Israel is beyond the era of wars;" that its "military might and superiority are sufficient to deter others from declaring war against her;" that this military might "would be sufficient to send a painful reminder to anyone who seemed to be undeterred; and that "since Israel did not intend to initiate a war, . . . the main challenge facing the land forces would be low intensity asymmetrical conflicts."
Those words sounded almost identical to Ari Shavit’s indictment of the Israeli elites in Ha’aretz last summer. He wrote then of the assumption "that Israel is insanely strong." Based on that assumption, "the defense budget was cut, the values of volunteerism mocked, the concepts of heroism and fortitude made despicable." "The unending attacks [of the elites] on nationalism, militarism and the Zionist narrative have eaten away from the inside at the tree trunk of Israeli existence, and sucked away its life force," warned Shavit. Meanwhile those same elites "stopped doing reserve duty, stopped sending their sons to fighting units, . . . mocked those officers who warned about unilateral withdrawals, . . . and mocked those who warned that emergency storehouses were empyting out and the enemies were becoming stronger."
After the release of the interim report, the same Shavit had the last word. "For many years, Israelis sought a government without the religious. In the Olmert government, they got a government without G-d -- . . . without a moral compass, without a political agenda, without a grip on reality."