Outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz strongly opposed a broad ground operation until the very final stage of the war, even though the two members of the General Staff - Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin and Major General Idan Nehushtan - who also came from the air force supported such action.
Halutz resigned last week following months of criticism over the handling of the war. Prior to his appointment as chief of staff, Halutz headed the air force.
What is surprising is that the two major generals who supported a broad ground offensive at an early stage - Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky and Chief of Operations Gadi Eisenkot - changed their views as the war continued and then hesitated to carry out such an offensive.
A Haaretz probe in recent weeks has enabled, for the first time, a reconstruction of critical parts of the exchanges during a series of meetings headed by the chief of staff. This is of course only a partial picture, but it reflects the conduct of the General Staff and the development of a military response to the continued barrages of Hezbollah Katyushas against Israel. The General Staff emerges from the exchanges as seemingly confused and hesitant.
The IDF Spokesman's Office said in response to the Haaretz findings that the report did not reflect the reality of the discussions. A military spokesman said that the quotes attributed to IDF commanders were taken out of context, thus creating an imprecise picture.
In the afternoon of Wednesday, July 12, 2006, several hours after the Hezbollah attack and the abduction of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers, a meeting of senior officers heard from the two leading experts at the General Staff on ground operations, Kaplinsky and Eisenkot, who called for a major ground offensive.
Kaplinsky (addressing the chief of staff): "When we say [the name of an operational plan - which includes extensive artillery and air attacks throughout Lebanon] we need to understand that immediately following this effort comes 'High Water' [a plan for the deployment of divisions of ground forces on a broad scale in Lebanon]." Eisenkot discusses preparedness for 'High Water' that would begin on July 16, 2006. "What I am saying is that the operation needs to be prepared. Not to embark on this through skirmishes [small-scale operations]. This will sour the matter and it will be a mistake."
Halutz does not reject a ground operation but says he does not see it happening by the end of this week. "I do not intend, at this stage, to do this, only to focus on an effort to lay down fire in all directions. We must create the menace and the readiness to undertake a ground offensive, but in my view this is not going to happen at the end of this week."
On July 15, there was another meeting to assess the situation. The General Staff is elated following the brilliant operation in which the air force destroyed most of the medium-range Fajr missiles in Hezbollah's arsenal. In view of the success of a plan whose origins are to be found in his days as chief of the air force, Halutz sticks to what he knows and trusts: the capabilities of the air force. "What is now left," the chief of staff tells his senior officers, "are the ruins of Beirut. And now, we will all focus, the entire Israel Defense Forces, on the hunt for the Katyushas. If the weather will be good tomorrow, the entire force is pouncing on southern Lebanon. There will be a shadow [because of the number of aircraft] over Lebanon."
Eisenkot recommends that the first, limited ground operations begin: "Raids limited in time and area. Enter and pull out."
The first signs of Bint Jbail
The next day, on July 16, Bint Jbail is raised for the first time as a target for a possible IDF operation. Major General Benny Gantz, head of the ground forces, makes the recommendation to the chief of staff. "Hassan Nasrallah's victory speech [in May 2000 after the IDF's withdrawal from southern Lebanon] was made in Bint Jbail. We must dismantle that place, it is a Shi'ite place - and they must be driven to the North. I would even consider a limited ground operation in this area, which can be held."
The focus on Bint Jbail was expected to take a substantial amount of time from the IDF, and some of this effort would come at the expense of dealing with the more pressing issue of the Katyushas. The operation was carried out against the views of many in the General Staff, including Northern Command GOC Udi Adam and his deputy, Major General Eyal Ben-Reuven.
The former chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, emphasized the need to "stamp the psyche" of the enemy. He was talking about the importance of symbolism. It turns out that in the second Lebanon war the "stamping" happened to us. The focus on the damage to symbols emerges over and over throughout the war. The fact that Bint Jbail, a Shi'ite town, became a bloody trap and the Golani Brigade suffered eight dead on the morning of July 26, only intensified the IDF's obsession with the place.
On July 18, Halutz convenes a "forum of senior officers for an interim briefing of the war." The head of the operations department, Brigadier Sammy Turjeman, offers a variety of options including "High Water".
"The maximum is 'High Water' - which you have turned down," Turjeman tells Halutz. "We are not considering this option.
Halutz: "I adopt the approach offered by the chief of operations [Eisenkot] for smaller operations. If it will not be done by the GOC, I will take it and pass on the responsibility to the General Staff."
The General Staff's concluding assessment that day: "The chief of staff does not see, at this time, a broad-scale ground operation."
At the same time, during the first two weeks of the war, and in a gradual fashion, Kaplinsky and Eisenkot begin to change their minds. If on July 1 they were pushing for a pre-planned, multi-level operation that would peak with a broad ground offensive, they then moved toward Halutz's position, wishing to move step-by-step, evaluating each and every stage of the way.
On July 26, the war entered its third week. That morning the bitter news of the fighting in Bint Jbail was received.
'A draw is a loss'
Halutz holds deliberations on the aims of the operation. The two strongest supporters of a major ground offensive are the two air force officers. Major General Nehushtan tells Halutz: "You must bring this before the government. You need to tell them straight that without a major ground operation, we cannot remove the Katyusha threat. If the government does not approve it, we should tell them that they must stop the campaign now. The fact is that the war between the IDF and Hezbollah we can describe as a draw ... We should say this: From our point of view, a draw is a loss - and we must not lose. We should tell the political echelon that we cannot limit [the Katyusha attacks] any more than we are now doing, except if we take over [the ground] up to the Litani [River]. I do not understand what we are now doing on a tactical level. What have we achieved? What do we want?"
GOC Northern Command, Udi Adam, who took part in the meeting through video-conferencing, tries to push for his idea, which calls for taking over a special security zone ("parameter") and turns it into the old security zone (before May 2000), using it as a staging area for taking over the territory up to the Litani, which is what "High Water" calls for.
Adam, speaking to the chief of staff: "'Parameter' is much more serious than going for Bint Jbail or any of those places. Look, we have concluded that we are not occupying Bint Jbail. To take it means to go through 5,000 homes, one at a time."
The head of the research department, Brigadier Yossi Beiditch: "If we enter Al-Hayam during the night and kill thirty guerrillas and none of our soldiers suffer a single scratch, that would effect no change. I only say that this approach of one step, and then another step - this will not result in a significant blow to Hezbollah."
Halutz: "What constitutes change?"
Beiditch: "A major ground operation."
Halutz: "You look at Hezbollah. I look at the Gaza-Palestinian model and I think that a step, and another step, and another step, will bring us to a different place, not completely, but it will take us somewhere else."
While most of his officers, including those from the air force, were pushing for a ground operation, Halutz was still holding back. He was supported by the chief of operations, Eisenkot.
Eisenkot: "There is a need for ground forces and a week of raids, while improving the mode of operations and learning from the experiences we have had so far."
Eisenkot continues to oppose the ground occupation. "The difference between the two options: [In the second,] we do not hold Lebanese soil. From my point of view, that is a burden. Therefore, the mode of operations: raids, in and out, what we said for Bint Jbail. We do not need to turn Bint Jbail into the Western Wall. We will have gains ... we will be in a different place."
Yadlin: "I am finding it hard to believe that the State of Israel with ... its divisions and with ... its aircraft is unable to carry out a ground operation that will deal with the total of 200 guerrillas. We have no choice, because if in another week we are unable to stop the Katyushas ... in the end the Syrians are watching, everyone is watching. We will need to do this. I am not saying to do it tomorrow, but we must do this in a week."
Yadlin, head of Military Intelligence, is aware of the costs of such a move, "but in the end, it appears that we are paying [the same price] in small doses, instead of paying it in one installment. [Turning to Halutz] Look, a long war is not in our interest. We want to have a strong finish - and this is not going to happen."
Kaplinsky: "I recommend that you order, tonight, the mobilization of as many units as necessary, to complete the plan that is supposed to be presented here tomorrow, and approve it, set the timetable and begin the preparations that will serve during the ground operation, whatever its size may be."
Halutz concludes: "The options were raised here. What we need to do is to combine all the alternatives together. There is no winning option here ... on the level of preparedness, we must be prepared to do it all."
'We need no heroic battles'
The chief of staff reiterates the possibility of intensifying the air operation, including the targetting of civilian infrastructure in Beirut.
"I intend to put this once more on the [government's] table. I say that before we start moving divisions, [to the rivers] Awali, Zahrani, Litani, it does not matter. We must bring Lebanon to a different place."
On July 27, the chief of staff gave new instructions to attack Bint Jbail.
Kaplinsky: "Regarding Bint Jbail, I agree with Udi [Adam] on one thing. There is no tactical military significance to conquering Bint Jbail [but] there is another sort of significance ... that of symbolism and what we are doing, we are doing for those who are going to tell the story tomorrow."
Adam does not agree: "We do not need a heroic battle in order to conquer that crap-hole [Bint Jbail]."
Halutz decides on a renewed operation against Bint Jbail and tells Adam: "On point of principle, I tell you this: You say there is no story. Well, I think there is one - and it is not on their side, it's on our side."
The debate on whether to turn to a major ground offensive continued for another week. In the end, when the IDF had already made up its mind that a ground offensive was its preferred option, the government hesitated, and then authorized, on August 11 - a critical delay - Operation "Change of Direction 11," that same last-minute attempt to reach the Litani River. By the time the General Staff and the government had reached the understanding that "the story" of this war was putting an end to the Katyushas and not to Bint Jbail and other symbols, it was already too late.
In retrospect, the words of Amos Yadlin, head of Military Intelligence, from the July 28 meeting, reverberate: "We are at a low point in the cycle between us and Hezbollah and the situation is not good. Hezbollah feels victorious and we are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the ones who are not delivering the goods. I think that it is our duty to change this. We have five to 10 days. We must make a plan and stick to it. Not change it all the time. To let the forces go to work. To cut down a bit on the number of reassessments and do more work ... On the matter of the Katyushas, we must show that it is possible to defeat this thing, otherwise it will follow us for years. Apparently this can only be done on the ground ... Come on, our fathers beat all the Arab states in six days and we are not able to go in with two divisions and finish off [the area] south of the Litani?"