IDF forces during Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon
IDF forces during Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon Photo by IDF
Text size

Was Ehud Barak's decision to unilaterally withdraw from the security zone in southern Lebanon 10 years ago the right decision for the wrong reasons? Was it correct even if it was based on assumptions that turned out to be wrong?

Chief among the assumptions underlying the decision to withdraw unilaterally was that once Hezbollah had achieved its stated goal of freeing southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation, it would restrict its activities to the Lebanese political arena and abandon further military operations against Israel.

Secondly, should Hezbollah, nevertheless, continue military actions against Israeli targets after the withdrawal, Israel believed it would then be free to respond with drastic military actions that would dissuade Hezbollah from engaging in further military activities against Israel.

Well, wrong on both counts. After the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah not only did not disband its militia but intensively armed itself, including the acquisition of large numbers of long-range rockets, and developed from a guerilla band into a well-trained and -equipped military force.

As Barak's predecessor as defense minister, my policy was to use the Israel Air Force to attack Lebanon's infrastructure in the north in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks - so as to change the rules of engagement with Hezbollah, a decision that brought about a cessation of Hezbollah's Katyusha rocket attacks. That policy was canceled by Barak as soon as he came into office.

Moreover, when less than five months after the Israel Defense Forces' unilateral withdrawal Hezbollah ambushed an army patrol on the Israeli side, killing three soldiers and taking their bodies into Lebanon, the harsh Israeli response that had been promised by Barak never took place.

Was the withdrawal still the correct decision, even if made for the wrong reasons?

Let's look at the balance sheet for Israel during the intervening 10 years. The first item on the debit side is the betrayal of our allies, the South Lebanon Army. They had fought shoulder to shoulder with the IDF against Hezbollah for years, suffering considerably higher casualties than us.

They were peremptorily abandoned. Some managed to escape to Israel, while others fell into the hands of Hezbollah. Betraying one's allies is a serious matter. It will have long-term ramifications for Israel, which has no small need for regional allies.

Has anybody forgotten Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah's speech after the IDF's withdrawal, calling Israel no more than a spider's web? The image the withdrawal created, of Israel being forced to retreat under pressure, unable to hold out for an extended period of time, had almost immediate consequences, when Palestinian terrorists launched the second intifada with the aim of duplicating Hezbollah's success in the north.

Three years of bloody terror in Israel's streets followed that withdrawal. Whatever deterrent capability Israel possessed was lost to the winds and had to be restored at considerable cost.

And Hezbollah, which had ruled southern Lebanon until the withdrawal, began to take over all of Lebanon, its missiles deployed not only in the south.

This fundamental change in the strategic balance in the area, which has long-term consequences, was permitted to develop under the mistaken impression that the withdrawal had brought peace to northern Israel. Instead, it brought on the Second Lebanon War with death and destruction in the north. Not only is the threat still there, but it is growing all the time.

And what appears on the credit side of the balance sheet? The reduction in the number of IDF casualties, which had been running at an average of two soldiers lost a month until the withdrawal, and might well have continued had the IDF maintained its positions in the security zone.

But here too, the overall loss of life, after the withdrawal - during the intifada, and during the Second Lebanon War - makes for a very negative bottom line. The withdrawal, carried out for the wrong reasons, was the wrong move.

The reasons the decision to withdraw unilaterally had popular support at the time - his promise to withdraw probably won the prime ministerial election for Barak - is the same reason why many to this day, despite all evidence to the contrary, consider it to have been a good decision.

An Israeli presence beyond the 1949 armistice lines, "the occupation," is by many considered to be the cause of all of Israel's misfortunes. This mindset led to the withdrawal from the security zone in Lebanon, to the tragic disengagement from Gush Katif in Gaza, the failure in the Second Lebanon War, the years of Hamas rockets hitting southern Israel, and the continuing pressure to withdraw from Judea and Samaria and from the Golan Heights - consequences be damned. It clouds the judgment of the public and politicians alike.