An Army Run Like a Jungle

During the Lebanon war it was clear the army was not delivering the goods the political leaders expected. But there was no room for Olmert and Peretz to be surprised.

"I don't see how the army is going to get me the victory I need," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sighed at a nighttime discussion on the 11th day of the war in Lebanon. Ten days later, then-defense minister Amir Peretz made a similar complaint to the senior officers. "It's infuriating - we're circling (the village of) Aita al-Shaab for the third time already."

The Winograd Committee's final report is full of quotes like this. The committee shares the politicians' amazement as it describes the many failures it found in the army's functioning before and during the war. It identifies a "harsh and gloomy picture" in the Israel Defense Forces. The army, particularly the ground forces, "for the most part did not succeed in fulfilling their principal missions." The IDF thus contributed to the feeling of "disappointment and missed opportunities among the public."

During the war it was clear the army was not delivering the goods the political leaders expected. But there was no room for Olmert and Peretz to be surprised. During their visit to the General Staff forum on July 11, 2006, on the eve of the kidnapping of the two soldiers, Major General Yishai Bar warned them that "the IDF is a mediocre army. There are still small islands of excellence left, but these islands are surrounded by a large sea of mediocrity." The two did not react directly. (And then-chief of staff Dan Halutz reassured them that "the missions will be carried out extremely well.")

The final report gives the politicians exaggerated and unjustified exemption from responsibility - the politicians who decided to embark on the war and made the important decisions during it. But this should not exempt the army from the radical reforms it needs to undertake in the wake of the findings.

Particularly in light of Olmert/Peretz's blatant inexperience on security matters, the IDF should have functioned better during the campaign. "We disappointed him," admitted three General Staff generals this week when asked about the army's relationship with the prime minister during the war. "A large part of the blame is ours."

The Winograd Committee describes the disappointment in detail. The military failure cuts across ranks, time periods, commands, branches and units, from the General Staff (in particular) to the brigade level (on occasion). Only the air force is a nature reserve. All the rest is run like a jungle, almost.

Here is a selection of parts of the report: The IDF behaved in Lebanon as though on a mission of "intensive ongoing security" rather than a war. Its operational concept in the war did not suit the challenges it faced. Basic values such as staying the course "unraveled" and were covered up with wordy explanations. The losses absorbed by the forces had an exceptionally bad effect on it. Three of the four divisions that participated in the fighting did not fulfill their missions at all. One of them had not trained properly for five years. In another, an elite division, a low fitness level was identified half a year before the war's outbreak. Two battles, Bint Jbail and the final ground operation ("Change of Direction 11") are described in relative detail and presented as colossal failures.

The taxpayer is also allowed to feel disappointed. For years a huge portion of the state budget has been allocated to defense, at the expense of education, science, health and welfare. The best manpower is placed at the army's disposal for three years.

Almost nobody questions this because the risks in our region are clear to everyone. In exchange, the citizen expects outstanding, almost perfect security; an army that will remind us of the brilliance of Operation Entebbe or the attack on the Arab air forces at the beginning of the Six-Day War.

Over the years we have become accustomed to lowering our expectations, however the severity of the failure in Lebanon will have long-term effects on the IDF's status in the eyes of Israeli society.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who has been serving in his position for almost a year, is the man expected to halt the downtrend. In light of the criticism in the report, Ashkenazi's policy has been to explain that the flaws have been repaired since the war, and that most of the military leadership has been replaced. As we know, the soldiers have gone back to training in full force.

But the committee says that far greater change is necessary than has been implemented, and hints at its fear that some of the lessons learned were mistaken. Since the General Staff is unwilling to present the issues for a thorough public discussion, it is hard to know whether the committee is right. On one point it is impossible to argue with the Winograd Committee: The State of Israel cannot permit itself over the long run to have an army on the low professional level displayed in the war and reflected by the report.