Their Most Humiliating Hour

Uri Bar-Yosef
Uri Bar-Joseph
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Uri Bar-Yosef
Uri Bar-Joseph

"Shvuyim belevanon: ha'emet al milkhemet levanon hashniya" ("Captives in Lebanon") by Ofer Shelah and Yoav Limor, Yedioth Books, 437 pages, NIS 98

The Winograd Committee has a problem. After previous wars, the reports of the commissions of inquiry, or at least the main points, were made public before important books about the war were published. This was the case for the Agranat Commission, whose investigation of the Yom Kippur War predated by four years the appearance of Hanoch Bartov's book about David Elazar, the chief of staff during that war. It was also the case for the Kahan Commission, which probed the events in Sabra and Chatila, and published its major findings over a year before Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari came out with their book about the first Lebanon War. On these occasions, the public did not have an alternative narrative that posed a challenge to the official one.

But like many things connected to the strange war in the summer of 2006, another precedent has been set: Just days before the scheduled appearance of the Winograd panel's interim report, we have available to us Ofer Shelah and Yoav Limor's book on the war, which may push the official report into the shadows. This is not only because the Winograd Committee, unlike its predecessors, was appointed by the prime minister, but because Shelah and Limor have done an excellent job of analyzing the way decisions were reached during the war and how the army carried out its duties. Their book reaches clear conclusions on these issues, which are the same ones on which the committee will be passing judgment.

With such a short span of time between the events and publication, the book could have been slapdash and of limited value. But thanks to three successful components, chances are that it will stand the test of time. For starters, it is packed with data. In the introduction, the authors write that they interviewed over a hundred people. These interviews, together with data gleaned from the minutes of government and military meetings, provide a wealth of new information that hones in on the key issues of the war.

Second, the professional knowledge and understanding that the authors bring with them make this book much more than reportage. Judging by the order in which the authors' names appear on the title page, as well as their personal records, most of the credit here goes to Shelah.

Shelah, who in 2003 published an intelligent and original study of the Israel Defense Forces, followed two years later by an excellent book on the second intifada (co-written with journalist Raviv Drucker), has become one of Israel's leading civilian experts on defense in recent years. This expertise and insight have added extraordinary depth and weight to the current book.

Third, on facts, knowledge and a fine grasp of the material, the book draws clear-cut conclusions regarding the sorry consequences of this war. It explores the personal, structural and cultural factors that led to poor decision-making at the top - by the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff - and also the lack of professionalism at the lower echelons. The tank teams of Armored Brigade 401, for example, damaged the treads of Merkava 4 tanks by unloading them improperly from the tank carriers.

On a personal level, very few of those involved in running the war come out looking good. Ministers Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Avi Dichter and Meir Sheetrit made various intelligent comments, but none were translated into politically binding votes. Others, like Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak, from outside the ruling circle, offered sage advice but were generally ignored. Among the professionals who did stand out were the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, who managed to read the map relatively accurately, along with a number of generals, such as Moshe Kaplinsky and Gadi Eisenkot, who realized the limitations of force, and Eyal Ben-Reuven, one of the few members of the IDF top brass with experience in commanding large forces.

The division commanders and their men, so keen to enter into combat, lacked the requisite leadership experience, which was critical considering the low level of professionalism of their units. The tragic meeting of high motivation and lack of professionalism bred a series of failed maneuvers, the worst of them being the two-day stand-off (August 9-10) between Amud Ha'esh, an armored division of reserve soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Erez Zuckerman, and a handful of Hezbollah fighters. The operation was clumsy and confused, and ended without any kind of accomplishment. It may well go down as one of the most humiliating operations in the history of the Israel Defense Forces.

Personal barbs

Most of the personal barbs, however, are reserved for the troika that led Israel into war. Ehud Olmert is portrayed not only as devoid of all leadership ability, but as incapable of distinguishing between being a prime minister and being a politician. He spent the war inundating the government with Churchillian speeches. Failing to grasp the relationship between the military and political echelons, he thought that approving the demands of the military relieved him of political responsibility (even in the event of future commissions of inquiry). Another curiosity is his weak grasp of history: Early in the book, Shelah and Limor quote Olmert at a cabinet meeting on August 6 in which he remembered "the Russians quitting Afghanistan, and the Brezhnev administration not giving a damn about public opinion." Leonid Brezhnev was the one who got the Soviets into Afghanistan - not the one who pulled them out (they left seven years after his death), and public opinion did play an important role in the decision to withdraw.

A much more serious flaw is the prime minister's temperamental character and his tendency to make hasty decisions, devoid of strategic thinking that would link the course of the war to its final objectives. As a result, Israel entered a war of choice that may have been justified but was doomed to fail. Worst of all, say Shelah and Limor, Olmert made life-and-death decisions on the strength of narrow political interests. The most prominent instance was on Friday, August 11, when Haaretz, for whatever editorial reasons, chose to publish on its front page an enraged opinion piece by Ari Shavit, calling on Olmert to resign if he approved the UN Security Council decision to end the war without a ground operation. It has been said that this article, more than anything else, convinced Olmert to endorse a move that left 33 soldiers dead, but achieved nothing politically.

The State of Israel has already had its share of rash, cynical, inexperienced leaders, but their advisors, for whom national defense was paramount, helped to balance out these personal weaknesses. In the summer of 2006, Olmert was surrounded by people who only made things worse. Amir Peretz is probably the first defense minister in this country's history who is simply not interested in defense. Much has been written about his inexperience and lack of understanding in military and defense issues, but the core of the problem was that the ever-suspicious Peretz put politics before professional considerations at nearly every major junction along the way. Because of his suspiciousness, he rarely relied on the experts around him and assembled a kind of secret staff of his own, among them highly experienced individuals like Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Amos Malka. But this did not have the desired effect, and Peretz ended up depending largely on his aide-de-camp - an officer with the rank of brigadier general, who won his trust but not the trust of the chief of staff.

Nevertheless, he did have strokes of genius here and there. At some stage, Peretz realized there was no real purpose behind the chief of staff's demand to escalate air force operations (in order to wipe out Bint Jbail from the air, for example), and his refusal to go along with it prevented a catastrophic outcome. In the end, however, Peretz, like Olmert, succumbed to narrow political interests. When he estimated that without the occupation of southern Lebanon he himself was liable to be erased from the political map, he backpedaled on his support for ending the war without a ground operation and unequivocally called for one.

Halutz's blind eye

The person who comes in for the harshest criticism is the chief of staff. Dan Halutz wanted to win the war on the strength of the air force alone, and considering the performance of the IDF land forces, one can certainly understand why. His method of achieving this goal was to bomb Lebanese infrastructure, which he believed would lead to internal Lebanese and/or global pressure that would put an end to the military freedom of action enjoyed by Hezbollah. When it turned out, early on, that the Bush administration saw this as a threat to the administration of Fouad Siniora, the apple of its eye, the option of winning the war from the air stopped being realistic. But Halutz refused to accept this, and stuck to his approach until the end of the war.

He took advantage of Olmert and Peretz's lack of military expertise to promote battle plans that other army personnel treated with skepticism, and mostly turned a blind eye to the problem of the short-range Katyusha rockets, which could only be destroyed in a long, grueling ground operation. He pushed for ineffectual military initiatives with a high casualty toll, like the conquest of Bint Jbail, which was meant to create a spectacle of victory in the place where Nasrallah delivered his "spider web" speech following the IDF pullout in May 2000. Halutz also made a point of not inviting then OC Northern Command, Udi Adam, to Tel Aviv, keeping the civilian decision-makers from hearing an opinion different from his own. He never convened the General Staff even once during the war, in order to discuss alternatives to the dominant strategy.

The arrogance and close-mindedness projected by Halutz trickled down to the army, creating a situation in which the senior commanders, who have become conformists over the last decade in any case, never confronted the army's flawed performance during the war. This "silence of the lambs" continued after the war, when the top brass met to discuss what lessons could be learned from it.

Throughout the war, decisions were made under the baton of these three leaders, who were largely competing with one another. At first, there was an atmosphere of "groupthink" and self-confidence. But as time wore on, with the difficulty of achieving their aims becoming increasingly apparent and the barrage of Katyusha rockets growing heavier by the day, the arrogance turned into despondency and helplessness. Then, to top it all, came the manipulations of the chief of staff, who created the impression that time was running out, and managed to push the ministers into endorsing his blueprint for a land offensive without introducing a single change.

The decision-making process in the Second Lebanon War was very much like that of the first Lebanon War, in 1982. The difference is that back then Israel had an army that knew how to fight. The IDF of 2006 was fine for assassinating terrorists and carrying out targeted operations, but with respect to ground combat, it had lost its touch. There is no question that this deterioration had many contributing factors, from too much reliance on advanced technology, to exaggerated fear of casualties, reflecting Israel's transformation into what military strategist Edward Luttwak calls a "post-heroic society."

Nevertheless, the IDF's weak performance this time around is clearly rooted in its unceasing efforts, since September 2000, to suppress the Palestinian intifada. The consequences have included less combat training for regular recruits, no training of reserve soldiers and a lower level of professionalism - especially among tank crews. A cadre of officers has grown up whose perspective and military skills are based entirely on skirmishes in the territories. These officers have no experience in running a conventional large-scale war, even against a much inferior force. They lead units that are unable to function without full-scale intelligence and from the moment they suffer their first casualty, beating a hasty retreat becomes their sole concern. Altogether, the image of the IDF that comes across in this book is a very pale reflection of the IDF we knew until last August.

None of this is to say that the militants of Hezbollah enjoy any advantage over the Israeli military. In many of the clashes, our soldiers proved their capability. But in the final analysis, the performance of Israel's ground troops was so disappointing that we can say the real price paid for the ongoing combat in the territories was very evident in the Second Lebanon War. In a sense, it was the Palestinians who defeated the IDF in that war.

The Winograd Committee will certainly address all these issues, although it will probably avoid the political minefields into which Shelah and Limor have dared to stray. The trouble is that even if Olmert and Peretz follow in the footsteps of Halutz, Israel's defense-related troubles will not be any closer to a satisfactory solution. The structural weaknesses, lack of professionalism, command problems and decline in morale that harmed the performance of the IDF in the last war stem from the tug-of-war between the constant demands on the army in the territories and the even greater challenge on the northern border. The solution lies in signing peace accords with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

The Winograd panel will not say this (it has no mandate to do so), and "Captives in Lebanon" does not venture into a discussion of the subject, but the conclusion one reaches from the book is that as long as Israel lacks serious leadership prepared to pay the price we know will have to be paid to end the conflict, the IDF will not be able to provide the level of security expected of it. And who will get the raw end of the deal? The Israeli public, of course.

Dr. Uri Bar-Joseph teaches in the department of international relations at the University of Haifa.