The Israel Defense Forces' unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 deserves a thorough analysis even 10 years later, because both the situation in Lebanon and the reasons for the withdrawal will continue to occupy us in the future.
By way of full disclosure, I admit that I do not approach this analysis from an objective standpoint. As deputy defense minister, I was firmly opposed to the unilateral withdrawal. On the political scene, almost no one else agreed with me, apart from Uzi Landau on the right and Yossi Sarid on the left. In the defense establishment, both Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz and GOC Northern Command Gabi Ashkenazi opposed the move.
After the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in the summer of 1982, it was Iran that waged war against Israel, with increasing intensity from one year to the next, through the organization it set up there - Hezbollah. For the 18 ensuing years, the fighting in Israel's security zone in South Lebanon took on the nature of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare, with the IDF ultimately gaining the upper hand. The communities along the confrontation line in the north enjoyed full security, worked their lands right up to the border, and no rockets were fired into our territory.
This situation was not achieved without our paying a price in blood, however. Each year, an average of 25 Israeli soldiers were killed. This was the price of maintaining the security zone, which provided a protective layer on which the Iranian guerrilla effort was shattered.
What was eroded during those years, and particularly in the four years that preceded the withdrawal, was Israeli society's ability to tolerate the constant price of casualties. Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the political leadership never sent a message of steadfastness to the public and the troops, no declaration that the war against Iran's proxy was a just war that must be tirelessly pursued, even if there was no blitzkrieg-type victory to be achieved.
Public opinion, with its weakening sense of mutual commitment, was shaped by the Four Mothers movement that placed concern for the lives of their sons, the most fundamental of human sentiments, above all considerations of national security, which had almost become a despised concept. Political leaders on the left and the right, with isolated exceptions - I among them - never presented any moral or substantive reply to this.
The leadership did not realize that the war was not being fought for control of the Beaufort ridge, or only for the well-being of the residents of the Galilee. It was the first attempt by Iran to defeat Israel in guerrilla warfare, to enable it to deploy right on our northern border. The national mood, which had nothing to guide it apart from the populist wailing of the Four Mothers, made withdrawal an election trump card.
The proponents of withdrawal argued that it would deny Hezbollah the pretext of "fighting the Israeli occupation," and would bring about an end to the organization's military operations and turn it into a purely political body. The opponents countered that there could be no vacuum in Lebanon, and in the absence of an agreement, Hezbollah would take the place of the IDF and the South Lebanon Army, deploy along the northern border fence and gain a convenient take-off point for renewed aggression. Iran would continue to pull Hezbollah's strings against us, from the line that we withdrew to.
The Second Lebanon War, which broke out on July 12, 2006, decided the argument six years later. The cost of the temporary calm was Hezbollah's propitious opening conditions. Our dead in that war numbered six times more than the annual average in the final years we were present in Lebanon.
The unilateral withdrawal had two other repercussions. One was the abandonment of the SLA, whose soldiers had linked their fate to ours and many of whom had fallen in combat, but were left to live in poverty in Israel or in humiliation and suffering in Lebanon. Their cynical abandonment is a moral stain on the State of Israel, a warning signal to anyone considering an alliance with us in the future.
The second repercussion was the dissemination of a message of weakness to our surroundings: We run away from places where we bleed. On June 30, 2000, one month after the withdrawal and three months before the outbreak of the second intifada, Yasser Abed Rabbo told me: "With you Israelis, one should only speak in 'Lebanese.' It's the only language you understand."
There are those who say that it's a good thing that the second intifada found us already out of Lebanon. But it is certainly possible to assume, although it cannot be proved, that the message of weakness transmitted by the retreat from Lebanon encouraged the Palestinians to return to using violent methods.
Today Hezbollah's strength is several times greater than it was in the summer of 2006, certainly far greater than it was in May 2000. Iran will continue to want to use that strength against the Israeli home front. A genuine understanding of the nature of the confrontation, and telling it the way it is to the public, will be necessary in the future as well.
The writer has served as a cabinet minister and a deputy minister. Today he is chair of the Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College.
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