The Fear of a Lebanon Redux

There has been an erosion of Israel's deterrence vis-a-vis Hezbollah and the army has also neglected its intelligence-gathering activities. What's to prevent another war up north?


Journalists at Lebanon border
Yaron Kaminsky / Archive

The media fanfare ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from southern Lebanon, on May 24, reached the point where some newspapers began the "celebrations" three weeks early. It's unlikely that anything like this will happen in August, on the fifth anniversary of the Gaza disengagement.

The departure from Lebanon is still perceived as justified, despite the war in 2006 and despite the arguments that the hasty retreat exposed Israeli society's vulnerability ("spider webs" is the adjective Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah used in his speech in Bint Jbail two days after the IDF's exit ). In Lebanon, Jews were not turned out of their homes and no parts of the historic homeland were abandoned. We were dealing with Arabs there, after all.

We left Lebanon over the course of two nights and not a single soldier suffered so much as a scratch, even though it wasn't at all clear whether Hezbollah really wanted to nip at the heels of withdrawing troops or just made do with plundering the Beaufort fortress afterward. "We fled, we won," is how Brig.-Gen. (res. ) Effi Eitam, then a senior commander in the north, described the withdrawal with biting precision.

Nevertheless, Ehud Barak was right: The then-prime minister understood what the average Israeli, and certainly the mothers of the soldiers, understood what he was doing. Continuing to hold the security zone was pointless. Israel got stuck in southern Lebanon due to inertia. In retrospect, the big question is why this didn't happen 10 years earlier, Barak said this week.

Lebanon was the burning issue on the security agenda in the 1990s, even though the scope of the damage appears modest in comparison to the troubles that came later: the second intifada, from September 2000 on, and the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Problematic combat norms were inculcated in the IDF in Lebanon, and the forces' attention was distracted from other vital areas.

Barak made a logical decision that also paid off for him politically. On March 1, 1999, the day after Brig.-Gen. Erez Gerstein was killed by a Hezbollah roadside bomb, Barak declared his intention to leave Lebanon within a year of his government's swearing-in. This announcement helped to tilt the race against Benjamin Netanyahu, and two months later Barak scored a decisive election victory.

On Memorial Day this year, two prominent commanders from the Lebanon era, Brig.-Gens. (res. ) Shmuel Zakai and Moshe (Chico ) Tamir, were interviewed on Channel 2. The impression conveyed by them was frustration over Israeli society's lack of support for their troops' sacrifice in Lebanon. What would we have achieved had we stayed? Zakai and Tamir, two intelligent and highly decorated officers, didn't say. It's true that Barak imposed the unilateral withdrawal on the army's officers, but many of them are now prepared to admit that he was right and they were wrong.

Tamir himself, in his book, "Milhama Lelo Ot," describes the IDF in Lebanon as a sluggish army that was slow to grasp its situation, and says it waged a war of attrition it could not win. The stay in Lebanon, wrote Tamir, was "a systemic failure that led the IDF to beat a hasty unilateral retreat without a security or political accord."

Another senior commander, Brig.-Gen. (res. ) Giora Inbar, concluded that in the security zone there was a "total lack of proportion - a great tactical success that not only did not lead to positive results, but sometimes led to a systematic collapse." Inbar described the vicious cycle in Lebanon: "A Golani battalion goes out on an operation of negligible importance, an armored carrier goes over a roadside bomb because of our error and we have eight casualties. We feel a need to shell them in return. In response, Hezbollah fires Katyushas and kills a civilian in the Galilee. Sitting in the security zone didn't benefit us at all."

Of course, there were disadvantages to the withdrawal. Hezbollah's victory celebrations fed the Palestinians' mistaken conclusion that they could expel Israel from the West Bank by force, and this contributed to the outbreak of the second intifada. The state invested considerable effort in rehabilitating the SLA refugees, but the image that will be remembered in the Middle East is thousands of SLA troops and their families crowding around the Good Fence in a panic, with Israel appearing to turn a cold shoulder to its benefactors.

And still, with zero international legitimacy, no diplomatic objective, no long-term military plan, and only minimal attempts to win the hearts and minds of the people of south Lebanon - this was an unwinnable war and it was best to end it.

The mistake

"The Lebanese tragedy has come to an end. Israel will set a very high threshold for a response throughout Lebanon," Barak promised when the last Israeli soldier left. It was a pledge he did not keep - and some will say that this is where the seeds of the 2006 misadventure were planted.

On October 7, 2000, less than five months after the withdrawal, Hezbollah attacked a military patrol in Har Dov, killed three soldiers and seized their bodies. The Israeli response was minimal: a light shelling of a limited area, followed by protracted negotiations to redeem the bodies. This was the Lebanese watershed. The day after the abduction at Har Dov, Barak embarked on a tour of Mount Hermon. In a meeting with officers there, Moshe Kaplinsky, then the commander of Division 91, harshly reproached him.

"It is a grave problem that we have no forces inside Lebanon right now," he told Barak. "You promised and we promised in your name to the residents of the north that if something happened here after the withdrawal, Lebanon would shake."

Barak has convoluted and not very convincing explanations for his decision to show restraint over the Har Dov incident. At the heart of the matter, apparently, were events occurring elsewhere. Nine days earlier, the second intifada had begun in the territories, followed by the Israeli-Arab October riots. The abduction occurred just hours after the IDF abandoned Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, under Palestinian attack. Israelis' anxiety level had risen sharply, and Barak was apprehensive about opening another front in the north.

Hezbollah took advantage of Israel's restraint and the relative quiet to build positions along the border, which served as a convenient point to launch the abduction of the two reservists that sparked the 2006 war. At the same time, it also built up an elaborate inventory of rockets that it fired at Israel during the war.

The postwar reckoning included much criticism of Israel's policy of counting on Hezbollah's rockets to rust from disuse. In fact, a very similar process, with even graver potential consequences, has been going on since the end of the war. The Islamic organization has armed itself with approximately 45,000 missiles and rockets, including some that could traverse all of Israel - and this time, too, Israel is sitting by quietly.

Despite its leaders' belligerent rhetoric, Israel largely refrains from taking high-profile action to keep its enemies from acquiring arms. The exceptions were the strike on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and on the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, when the "Begin doctrine" justifying such an undertaking in order to thwart a nuclear threat was invoked.

In addition to the erosion of deterrence vis-a-vis Hezbollah, the IDF has also neglected its intelligence-gathering activities, particularly on the tactical level, along the border. It has allocated too few resources and forces to securing the border and hasn't been serious enough about preparing for the next round in Lebanon. For all of these things, it paid a high price in 2006.

After the war

Now the parties are gearing up for the fourth campaign. The challenge facing the IDF now is not guerrilla attacks on a force holding onto a dubious defense zone, but a potential military campaign involving thousands of rockets and missiles fired at the Israeli home front. Apparently, the enemy's sense that Israel is unpredictable is dampening any interest in risking another confrontation at the present time. Brig.-Gen. Itai Baron, head of the Dado Center for Military Thinking, said this week in a lecture at the Fisher Institute, "In many ways, the other side thought that we lost our heads in the war in Lebanon and in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza."

However, Lebanon could still ignite as an outgrowth of developments on the "main front" - the struggle to halt the Iranian nuclear program. In that case, it's doubtful whether the IDF's response will be good enough, despite the intensive effort to make improvements since 2006.

The most important question in the north for now is how Israel can avoid repeating past mistakes, so that the next few years do not bring a new variation of the errors of 2006 ("We can deal with the rockets" ), 1996 ("There is no alternative to an IDF presence in the security zone" ) - or, worst of all, 1973 ("A political accord can wait, our intelligence will be able to warn us in time before we are attacked, and if worst comes to worst - we'll break the Arabs' bones" ).