Israel’s Leaders of 2006 Show No Remorse for the Second Lebanon War

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IDF soldiers in the Second Lebanon War.Credit: Nir Kafri

“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” is a 2003 Academy Award-winning documentary by the American filmmaker Errol Morris. The U.S. defense secretary during the Vietnam War is interviewed throughout.

Morris leads McNamara through his diverse career: air force analyst during World War II, president of Ford Motor Company and defense secretary; he was one of the people most identified with America’s disaster in Vietnam. It’s little coincidence the film won an Oscar.

This month, Channel 10 broadcast the first installment of Raviv Drucker’s Hebrew-language documentary on the Second Lebanon War; it was the season opener of the weekly documentary program “Hamakor” (“The Source”). Drucker, whose most recent op-ed for Haaretz came out last month, interviews the trio in charge in 2006 — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

There will be another installment of this riveting documentary. Still, it’s as removed from “Fog of War” as Washington is from Jerusalem.

Former Defense Minister Amir Peretz.Credit: Nir Kedar

Drucker, in his typical manner, doesn’t make life easy for his interviewees. The three men reply candidly, but any expectation they’ll show a shred of remorse is dashed early on. There are no confessions or half-admissions.

Dan Halutz, left, with Ehud Olmert, in 2012.Credit: Moti Milrod

Olmert, Peretz and Halutz (the latter two at least seem to be struggling a bit with their memories of the war) exploit their chance for self-justification, score-settling and blaming others.

Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, who led Northern Command and was one of the more likable commanders of the war, takes most of the flak. He pops up briefly at the end of the film as a reservist volunteer driving tank carriers during last summer’s Gaza war. How can you compare him to the other three guys?

The three interviewees still carry the heavy burden of Lebanon. For Olmert, who is up to his neck in legal problems, this is a chance to portray the war as his flagship legacy, linking it to achievements attributed to him in the foreign media such as the assassination of Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh.

Peretz, the only one still politically active, has received partial rehabilitation due to the marketing of his role in the rolling out of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Halutz, for his part, appeared in TV studios last summer giving advice on the ground operations during Operation Protective Edge.

Have the three operations in Gaza since the Second Lebanon War — winter 2008-09, November 2012, summer 2014 — shed a different light on that earlier war?

Certainly the problems combating guerrillas and terror are clearer today than in 2006. But when the three leaders note with pride the relative quiet along the Lebanese border for almost nine years, they suggest they conducted the 2006 war successfully, which isn’t the case.

No fear of flying

Olmert, Peretz and Halutz conveniently ignore that Israel is immensely stronger than Hezbollah (yet didn’t come close to routing it), that the quiet is a result of mutual deterrence and that the Shi’ite organization has tens of thousands of rockets that can reach all Israel, while breaching the UN Security Council resolution that Olmert claimed as an achievement. Also ignored is that in recent years Hezbollah has been busy with the Syrian civil war, not confronting the Israel Defense Forces.

The documentary skillfully weaves together archival footage with the interviews; the result is a deluge of images and declarations from a period Israel would prefer to forget.

When Olmert praises himself for showing restraint and levelheadedness, we can’t ignore the contrast with the footage and news stories from those days. We can’t say his comments in the film make us long for his leadership. He shows equal disdain for his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But he’s no misogynist; Peretz gets the same treatment.

When talking about the air force’s technology, Olmert’s face lights up and his hands wave. The former prime minister is keen about flying. For example, “Rice flew around madly” trying to arrange a cease-fire, but one mustn’t forget that she had “a private plane with all the conveniences.” (Some might hear an echo from the secret recordings made by Olmert’s bureau chief Shula Zaken. Olmert, who has been convicted of corruption, is heard discussing the advantages of his Audi A-8 government car.)

Since the documentary is chronological, we experience the war all over again. We’ve already forgotten so much, and everyone involved has matured, at least physically — ministers, generals and broadcasters. The government convenes after the abduction of two reserve soldiers and approves a powerful response, without realizing that it’s heading toward war.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah goes on television during a cabinet session in Jerusalem, advising Israel’s three leaders to ask their predecessors about Lebanon. The green defense minister promises that Nasrallah won’t forget the name Amir Peretz. (His attempts to refute this in the film are unconvincing — those were his words at the time.)

Immediately after the tragedy in Qana, where an Israeli airstrike mistakenly killed civilians, Peretz meets with Rice but tries to hide from her the civilian casualties. Three weeks after the war breaks out, Olmert says in a speech at the National Defense College that the Middle East has changed following Israel’s great achievement. Never again can Israel be threatened by missile fire. Halutz fails to show up at a critical discussion on the ground offensive; he’s giving a TV interview.

Meanwhile, Drucker draws out some resounding statements. Peretz admits he was horrified by the conditions at emergency-reserve depots, as if he didn’t have to enquire about their state when he insisted on calling up reserves.

Halutz says he was surprised by the poor performance of armored and artillery units. He believes that Northern Command officers were more comfortable with Israeli civilian casualties than IDF ones.

On another occasion, he says: “Let’s not confuse issues — from [Yitzhak] Rabin to [Benjamin] Netanyahu, prime ministers haven’t been keen to dispatch ground forces because they understood the meaning of such a move.” In other words, they were concerned about losses.

A wonderful country

Olmert reveals that he pressured Halutz to dismiss Northern Command chief Adam during the war. On the ground offensive, Olmert states: “I understood that the more forces I sent there the more casualties we’d have without obtaining the results I wanted.”

Halutz admits he considered the frequent discussions convened by Peretz a waste of time, similar to debates on the TV satire “A Wonderful Country.” He accuses five generals (still on active duty) of undermining him during the war.

Olmert, like Halutz, poses as an analyst. Toward the end of the war, he thought the second night when large forces were flown in was unnecessary. But he didn’t think it was his role to intervene. Peretz recalls that Halutz wanted to call things off after Hezbollah shot down a helicopter.

Halutz denies this (Drucker believes Peretz’s version). The most amazing story is when Halutz quotes the head of General Staff operations, Gadi Eisenkot, the current chief of staff. Eisenkot told his boss that Halutz was living in a fantasy: “This isn’t the air force,” which Halutz had previously commanded. “Here people will do everything not to carry out your orders.” Halutz summarizes dryly: “Gadi was right.”

These words, more than the years of quiet, reflect the nature of the 2006 war. Drucker summarizes it well with footage shown toward the end of the film. Capt. Aviram Elad, then a reserve company commander in the Paratrooper Brigade (now a battalion commander), looks back at the camera on a bus taking him and his men out of Lebanon. He had spent two weeks in Hezbollah-land.

The soldiers, happy that it’s over, are singing in the background, but Elad is more sober: “They’ll come out and be confronted with reality. When they realize what happened there, their smiles will vanish. Things will soon change.”

“Why will it change?” asks the interviewer. Elad replies: “Because the brigade lost 12 men.”

Cut to Olmert, praising himself, imitating the Texas drawl of President George W. Bush at the end of the war: We performed a sacred task — I really didn’t want to stop it. Even when Olmert declares he takes full responsibility for everything, we’re not convinced.

We’re not convinced that Olmert’s team was up to the task. This is the case even when Drucker shows a clip of current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the end of the 2014 Gaza war, when Ya’alon mentions the effectiveness of the deterrence created by the 2006 Lebanon war.

Actually, at the end of that war, Ya’alon had very harsh words about Olmert and Halutz. Olmert, facing Drucker’s camera, is now ready to forgive Ya’alon, even though Ya’alon has never asked for forgiveness.

The prime minister then praises everybody — the soldiers, the nation, even Peretz. And himself, of course. Any regrets or fresh thoughts? Any words of consolation or a hint of asking forgiveness from the bereaved families — at least the families of the 33 who died in the needless ground offensive in the war’s last 60 hours?

Not in this film. These are sentiments more suitable for retired American bureaucrats, not for Israeli politicians fighting for their place in history.

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