A painful return to fateful hours
It was Friday, a week before the end of the Second Lebanon War. At 5 A.M., the phone rang in Haggai Alon's home on Kibbutz Naan. The political adviser of then defense minister Amir Peretz awoke and was surprised to hear U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones on the line. The seasoned diplomat did not conceal his anger. He said Washington had just received reliable reports from Beirut that Israeli jets were bombing bridges in Beirut's northern neighborhoods. Alon promised to find out what happened.
He knew that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had told the Americans he would avoid strikes on infrastructure in Beirut, so as to shore up the deteriorating status of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The young kibbutznik made a number of phone calls to higher-ups at the Defense Ministry. No one knew a thing. The army also wasn't able to determine who gave the order to bomb.
An hour later, the media abroad and in Israel were reporting that Israel had attacked Christian areas in Lebanon. That afternoon a meeting took place in the defense minister's vast conference room. The chief of staff, head of Military Intelligence (MI), air force commander and senior ministry officials were all there.
The confusion was apparent on the participants' faces. No one took responsibility for the bombing, which had caused unnecessary international damage. Everyone knew there was a specific directive of the cabinet and the defense minister to avoid striking infrastructure in the Lebanese capital. Everyone remembered that at a meeting held the previous night, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz expressed reservations concerning this decision. But Shabbat was approaching and the meeting dispersed without the mystery being solved.
The story of the bombing of Beirut is one of the most troublesome memories Alon carries with him from the Second Lebanon War.
During the war, he went every Friday with a member of the kibbutz movement to pay condolence calls to the bereaved families living on kibbutzim. He says these were the most difficult experiences of his life, especially the visits to the homes of soldiers who were killed in the last 60 hours of the war - totally unnecessary, in his opinion. Since the visit to the last family, the skin on his face has been peeling. Because of the stress, he wasn't able to approach Mika, his infant daughter, for two months, he says.
Alon was born on November 29, 1973, a few days after his uncle, Haggai, a tank company commander in Ori Orr's Brigade No. 679, was killed on the Golan Heights. From 2001 until the end of the last war, Alon was one of Amir Peretz's closest associates. Peretz appointed him secretary of the Histadrut labor federation's leadership, and as one of the heads of the Labor Party campaign in the last elections. When Peretz got the defense portfolio, Alon became a political adviser in the ministry, the liaison with the defense industries, and the person responsible for what he calls the "fabric" of Israeli-Palestinian life. He spent 14 months at the Defense Ministry, most of them at odds with the defense establishment, which saw his boss (and him) as a foreign element.
Two years after the war, after reading and digesting the flood of words generated by politicians and analysts, and the criticisms voiced about a prisoner-exchange deal and about UN Security Council Resolution 1701 - Alon returns to those fateful hours and argues that the official reason given for launching the war was "a bluff."
'White flag' illusion
Two years after the end of the war, Israel last week released the murderer Samir Kuntar in exchange for the bodies of the two dead soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. When we left Lebanon, did you really think it would be possible to bring the two home in a military operation?
Alon: "From the first day it was clear to everyone in the defense establishment that there was no chance of rescuing the abducted soldiers. I knew all the talk about going to war in order to bring back the soldiers was a bluff - just like the illusion that an aerial attack would stun Hezbollah and then it would raise a white flag. I remember the consultations that with Amir in the evening, after the meeting with the prime minister and the approval of the very first operations of the war. Sitting in the room are all the people who are supposed to know something, from the army and other places, and no one knows a thing. There was no idea of where [the two] were being held. Had we known, we would have launched a military effort to rescue them. It was clear that the soldiers would be freed after lengthy negotiations with Hezbollah. One junior officer even suggested starting the negotiations immediately, so that there wouldn't be more 'Ron Arads.' A heavy silence settled on the room.
"No one had the courage to tell the public that it was impossible to bring the soldiers back, and that a military operation was being launched because Hezbollah crossed a red line and we wanted to try and change the situation. It was clear to us from the intelligence materials that Hezbollah was not prepared for a war. We knew that we also weren't prepared for one. In effect, we entered the war in the third week, but as far as the abducted soldiers were concerned, it was already too late and unnecessary. All the rest is written in the Winograd Committee's report and in the books about the war."
As a young citizen, you landed one day right amid the State of Israel's top brass, who were facing a war on the front lines and on the home front. What did you discover behind the scenes?
"You enter the sanctuary of the Israeli defense establishment and discover a vacant place. There is no in-depth discussion, people are afraid to talk and all positions are coordinated ahead of time in backrooms. Very quickly we realized that military intelligence officers do not have the tools to analyze political events. This is one of the reasons why the political echelon was surprised within a year and a few months by two difficult events: first, Hamas' victory in the elections, and 14 months later, its takeover of Gaza.
"[Peretz], who came from a civilian background, had a hard time checking the preparatory work and the facts the army presented him. Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy, a former OC Northern Command, chief of MI and a veteran fighter, agreed to help Amir. He reviewed the plans the army presented and more than once suggested canceling them. It was clear to us that senior officers were presenting plans that bore a hint of imagination and daring, but did not have any rationale or operational purpose, and that the army was not really intending to implement them. They forced Amir to reject them, and immediately leaked to the press that the minister was refusing to let the Israel Defense Forces win.
"For example, in the early stages of the war, there was pressure from the commanders of the army's special ground forces to embed a few small units deep inside the territory controlled by Hezbollah. Saguy immediately said that small forces with light weapons would have trouble surviving and in the event they were discovered, extracting them would be very problematic."
Alon explains that a forum was set up during the war to provide the defense minister with suitable tools for making decisions. The members: Uzi Baram, former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak, retired generals David Ivri and Ami Sagis, former Foreign Ministry director general and senior Mossad official David Kimche, Ambassador Avi Primor, Dalia Rabin and Pini Meidan, a former senior Shin Bet security service official.
"They presented the minister with a series of reports with operational recommendations," recalls Alon, "but the defense and MI people rejected all of them. All the reports were submitted to the Winograd Committee."
There was at least one plan discussed by the forum, which the public could have considered poorly thought out - or perhaps even dangerous. "A large number of the people on the team," says Alon, "presented a plan to augment tension with Syria - for example, by posting large reserve forces on the Golan Heights - so that [President] Assad could not argue that he was not connected to the war. This would have increased his isolation in the Arab world, and pushed him to renew negotiations immediately after the war and also to resolve the problems of the border between Syria and Lebanon. That way there would have been a chance of obtaining from the war in Lebanon broader negotiations in the spirit of the Saudi initiative."
Weren't you afraid that Syria would be dragged into a war and send Tel Aviv residents to the shelters?
"There was no talk of planning a war with Syria, just of increasing the political tension. We thought that a controlled process of placing reserve forces on the Golan, diverse use of the air force, and a lot of regional and international diplomacy would force the UN to intervene, and then the Syrians could not absolve themselves of responsibility for the war. In the first Lebanon War there were direct confrontations, including an operation to destroy Syrian anti-aircraft systems, and war nevertheless didn't break out [with that country]."
And how was this proposal received?
"Defense Ministry and IDF officials supported the idea and there was an understanding that it should be carefully considered together with the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council. Halutz refused to even raise the matter for discussion. Because of Halutz's opposition and the political echelon's fears, including the PM's, of clashing with the chief of staff, even any thought of reviewing the plan unofficially with the Americans was rejected outright."
But just last week Olmert and Assad sat at the same table in Paris, at the Union for the Mediterranean conference.
"The Syrians are laughing in our faces. The Paris conference is the best proof that we lost any real basis for using the international community against them. The Lebanese administration headed by Siniora is weaker than ever, among other reasons, because of Israel's decision not to try and involve the Syrians in an arrangement to end the war. This is how we contributed to the return of the Syrians to the Lebanese arena with greater force, and today Hezbollah is in the government backed by unprecedented military power. We contributed to the weakening of Siniora already during the war, when Halutz imposed the [decision concerning the] unbearable siege of the Beirut airport on the political echelon. This was unnecessary vengefulness, which almost led to the collapse of the government in Beirut. The bombings ended only after the Americans threatened us almost violently, to get us to stop. The Americans didn't believe us when we said our reason for the bombing was the fear that the abducted soldiers would be spirited away. Even we didn't believe that excuse!"
This past week the government received a report that since the passage of UN Resolution 1701, Hezbollah has more than doubled its supply of missiles.
"The resolution is far from a perfect solution, but it has improved the situation compared to what prevailed beforehand. It had to be upgraded significantly and it could have been done at least two weeks earlier. But when I hear that security officials are complaining that Hezbollah has more missiles than it had before the war, I burst with anger. They thought that if we ignore the Syrians, the border would seal itself? That the Syrians would volunteer to stop the flow of missiles? The breached Syrian-Lebanese border is the biggest failure of the war."
The strongest force
Today there is talk of a system that will intercept Qassams from Gaza. Did you find in the Defense Ministry the means to cope with Hezbollah's rockets?
"That's another scandal that has to be investigated. When I came to the ministry, I discovered that two years earlier it was decided to channel most of the budget from missile-interception systems to 'space weapons.' During the course of the war, defense industry officials who wanted to find a solution for the missile barrages approached us and presented a series of proposals. They presented them to the minister, but the army refused to hear them, using the ridiculous arguments that they wanted to make money without issuing a tender. There were also fights between the various defense industries over the different means. It reached a point where one official refused to give another one the codes needed to coordinate between the new technologies and the devices in the IDF's hands.
"By chance I discovered that the power of the defense industries is the strongest in the defense establishment. For some reason, the Winograd Committee skipped over this episode, just as it didn't investigate the scandal of the use of cluster bombs or the attempt to conceal the maps showing the dispersal of this questionable weapon."
When did you find out about it?
"Only after the war did we first find out, Amir and I, about the use of cluster bombs. It happened when the French, the German and the Spanish asked for the maps of the bombs to ensure that their people, who were about to deploy in South Lebanon, would not be hurt. Even though it was clear I was contacting them on behalf of the minister, the responsible parties in the IDF refused to give me the maps. They wanted to conceal the fact that like madmen, we fired this problematic weapon at populated areas. They did this without approval from above and in an uncontrolled fashion, even though it involved old armaments the Americans gave us - provided we would use them only in the event that the country faced an existential threat. Out of fear that our soldiers would charge into Lebanon and be injured by bombs left in the field, they were careful to fire only at areas where it was clear the IDF would not enter."
How did you react?
"When I told Amir about this, he was stunned. The story continued for a few days and only after some ambassadors threatened that their countries wouldn't send their forces and would file a complaint against Israel with the International Court in The Hague, including a personal claim against the minister and the IDF chain of command - only then did Amir issue a directive to hand over the maps. Even in this case, as in the case of the bombing of infrastructure in Beirut toward the end of the war, and other similar incidents where there was a severe deviation from orders, no action was taken against those responsible."