3 Years On, Israel Still Divided Over Second Lebanon War

Barak: The sacrifice of the soldiers made up for the mistakes of the ranks above them.

On Wednesday afternoon, during the official ceremony on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem commemorating the fallen of the Second Lebanon War, reservists from the Alexandroni Brigade were wrapping up a grueling week-long exercise.

A day earlier they had marched, with all their gear, weapons, and supplies on a 25 kilometer trek, at the end of which they had to simulate an attack on a hill, only to be ordered immediately against another target - an urban setting in Lebanon - as a result of "changed orders."

In the summer 2006, the brigade fought on the western Lebanese front, and contrary to some of the other units, completed all its assignments, gained control of the area and suffered few losses.

However, what is remembered is that immediately after the end of the fighting, there were serious confrontations between the soldiers and their commander over the problems with the water supply and shoddy relations between the senior officers and their troops.

Three years later there is noticeable difference in the way the army is approaching training, readiness and the preparation of its reserve units. One hears over and over the statement "we will fight the way we train."

The training sessions are loaded with variables to make them comparable to real combat. It seems that the command has also declared war on the typical waste of time that is such an integral part of the reserve duty experience.

However, as the defense establishments marked the third anniversary of the war, there was little consensus over the purpose and management of the war.

At the ceremony in Jerusalem, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that it was the sacrifice of the soldiers that made up for the mistakes at the ranks above them.

At at a different ceremony, GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot acknowledged the "mistakes in preparedness and the way military force was utilized," but insisted that "the purpose was just and ended an unacceptable reality along the northern border."

Barak is probably the harshest critic of the war. During that summer he had still been on a break from politics, and his speech Wednesday was him identifying with the bereaved parents, many of whom are furious at the way the war was managed. However, the speech was also the last bit of mud thrown at the three managers of that war: Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz.

Eizenkot's point of view is starkly different from Barak's. Three years ago he was chief of operations for the general staff, and to a certain extent is the last of those who had a part in the war and is still in command.

Even though Barak has a great deal of respect for Eizenkot, the two have very different views of the war. Barak has expressed the view that the government showed immaturity in its decision to respond to the attack and capture of soldiers, in its poor planning and in the lack of appreciation of the impact of 34 days of pounding on the home front.

Eizenkot believes that at the end of the day the army did fulfill many its assignments - except for those the politicians ordered it without consulting with the general staff.

Moreover, the results that could be had were limited from the start. For example, there was no room for the ambitious claim that it was possible to stop the firing of rockets during the war, but the fact is that after the cease-fire there have been three mostly quiet years.

During the past year, it seems that the image of the war has improved somewhat, in terms of the way it was carried out and the results it had. There are those who even describe it as a major strategic victory.

For Olmert, who is certainly planning a political come back, this is a critical issue. Several weeks ago, Brig.- Gen. Gal Hirsch, the commander of Division 91 who was forced to resign as a result of the war, published a book on his version of events. Dan Halutz is due to publish a tell-all soon, and on Sunday he will appear with his former deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky, at a conference on the war in Tel Aviv University.

It is important to put things in the right perspective in light of these developments. Israel did not lose the war in 2006. The results were closer to a draw, but the perception was one of failure because the expectations set by Israel were not met. The IDF, which two or three years earlier had managed to stop a wave of Palestinian terrorism in urban centers, failed to stem the rocket fire of Hezbollah. Citizens in the north were in shelters for five weeks, and neither the government, nor the general staff realized the severity of the situation. The country was insufficiently prepared to provide for the basic needs of the civilians.

In terms of the results, there have been a few positive developments. The border is relatively calm, deterrence (a vague concept) appears to be working for now, and the army realized the real levels of readiness of its units and has since sought to improve performance, which was proven (against a weaker foe than Hezbollah) in the Gaza Strip earlier this year.

Nonetheless, the situation in the north is fluid and Iranian and Syrian considerations may result in the renewal of hostilities. A reevaluation of the events of 2006 is always welcome, but it does not lead anyone to the conclusion that it was a wonderful war (there is nothing like that).

"We have learned a few things since," a senior staff officer who took part in the war said recently. "I hope that we are wiser, less arrogant, less drawn into making statements that we cannot back up. The sense of failure after the war did not stem so much from the IDF performance but from the gap between the results and the exaggerated expectations. But the feeling at the end of the war I remember very well. It was like watching an accident taking place before your eyes and knowing that you could not prevent it."