In the coming days the Winograd Committee's interim report on the Second Lebanon War will be published. The report will deal, among other things, with the six-year period preceding the war, 2000 to 2006.
The year 2000 is important as a kind of watershed. Hafez Assad died and his son Bashar came to power. Bashar brought Hassan Nasrallah closer and considered Hezbollah a part of his military deployment. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon unilaterally, but in coordination with the United Nations over the determination of the border. The second intifada broke out. Hezbollah kidnapped three Israel Defense Forces soldiers on Mount Hermon. During this time Iran helped Hezbollah to assemble a huge battery of missiles in Lebanon.
Many assume that the Winograd Committee will focus on these six years, on issues such as how the reserve units had almost no training exercises, why the reserve units' emergency warehouses had emptied out, and why Israel assumed that Hezbollah's missiles would rust.
These are important questions, but there is a more important question: Didn't Israel make a serious mistake when it refrained from responding with force to the build-up of the Hezbollah-Iran-Syria military system next to the border?
Over the years a threatening system was established there, which required an early preventive strike. Israeli avoidance of a preventive strike finally led to the war in 2006.
Israel even avoided signaling to its enemies that it would not return to business as usual in the face of the threatening system. It did not try to stop the transfer of Iranian weapons to Damascus, a move the Americans implied they would accept with understanding. Israel never once struck at the convoys transferring the missiles to Lebanon, and never struck even one Hezbollah missile warehouse, or even the short-range rockets near the border.
Although Israel prepared itself adequately for long-range missiles and carried out several painful localized operations, these did not affect the construction of the threatening system. The result was that during this period Israeli deterrence against Hezbollah and Iran increasingly eroded.
On March 7, 2000, even before the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, the head of Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Malka, submitted a personal assessment to his superiors, in which he wrote, among other things: "Those in favor of a unilateral withdrawal are relying on the assumption that it is possible to create a sufficiently powerful Israeli deterrence. It is doubtful whether we will be able to create a deterrence. The Revolutionary Guards are helping Hezbollah to set up a long-range weapons system to reach areas in Israel where there is no protection for the population. The result will be that a mutual counter-deterrence will arise against Israel."
Unlike Israel, Hezbollah did act. Its actions included the firing of anti-aircraft artillery, which in effect harmed Israeli communities, and it crossed the border and killed six Israelis in an incident. About a month after the intifada broke out, Hezbollah kidnapped three soldiers on Mount Hermon, and it did the same in July 2006, three weeks after a military operation began in the wake of the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit.
In six years Israel responded twice against the Syrians, but not against the array of rockets, whose number had already reached 10,000. Israel hit a Syrian radar station in Dar el Beidar in Lebanon, and a Palestinian training camp in Ein el Saheb in Syria.
The prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, rejected the suggestion by chief of staff Shaul Mofaz to take strong action against Hezbollah after the kidnapping of the three soldiers. The main reason was to not open a second front. Israel wanted to focus on the Palestinian front.
This was later also the opinion of Ariel Sharon as prime minister. Sharon certainly did not want to open a second, broader front against Iran, which had built the threatening system in Lebanon.
Hezbollah and Iran read things differently. They understood that Israel was incapable of properly handling combat on two fronts at the same time. Hezbollah acted on this assumption when it embarked on the kidnapping on July 12, 2006. A few weeks earlier it had not refrained from attacking the air force base on Mount Meron with rockets.
It is a serious mistake to think that refraining from a reaction to the kidnapping of the soldiers in July would have spared us a war. The war would have arrived later, after greater incitement on the part of Hezbollah and Iran.
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