Israel’s Second Lebanon War Remains a Resounding Failure

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Israeli soldiers near the border of Israel and Lebanon, July 7, 2016.
Israeli soldiers near the border of Israel and Lebanon, July 7, 2016.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Critiques of the Second Lebanon War 10 years later have taken a different tack. Analysts and TV reporters have wondered that maybe the war wasn’t so terrible after all.

The passage of time can indeed put things in perspective. The war that broke out on July 12, 2006, didn’t cause a calamity on the scale of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The enemy turned out less ferocious than the efficient monster portrayed in the Israeli media.

The Israel Defense Forces had fought Hezbollah and Palestinian groups before, but this time it faced an enemy that avoided direct clashes while tailing it at every opportunity and firing Katyusha rockets at the Galilee until the war’s last day. The fact that the IDF couldn’t bring the campaign to a decisive conclusion created great frustration in the government, among the public and in the army itself.

In the decade since, Israel has learned a few things about such confrontations. There are reasons to believe that next time the IDF will better face the challenges, though the difficulty in achieving a decisive victory will probably remain.

The improved analysis on the war is based on two arguments, only one of which is mentioned in public. The first and legitimate reason relates to results on the ground. The relative calm on the Lebanese border since the war is a historical aberration.

The second reason, a political one, is hidden from view. Ehud Olmert, who oversaw the war, was the last prime minister to be supported by the center and left. His failure in Lebanon revived Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career and indirectly spurred his return to power two and a half years later.

Israeli soldiers walk together after cossing back into Israel from Lebanon Monday, July 31, 2006.Credit: David Guttenfelder, AP

As the left’s anger at Netanyahu’s seemingly endless rule accumulates, the tendency to view Olmert’s term through rose-colored glasses increases. When this refers to the bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor, which the foreign press attributes to Israel, this is understandable. The problem is when many Israelis play down the corruption for which Olmert was sent to prison, and their soft stance on the performance of Olmert, the cabinet and the army during the 2006 war.

The Second Lebanon War remains a resounding failure. Anyone who denies this ignores three reasons for the calm since.

The first is Hezbollah’s embroilment in the Syrian civil war. Ever since that conflict broke out in March 2011, and even more so after President Bashar Assad requested substantial aid from Hezbollah in the summer of 2012, the Shi’ite group has been up to its neck in fighting. Hezbollah has 5,000 fighters in Syria, almost a quarter of its manpower. Around 1,600 have died, with 6,000 wounded.

For the first time Hezbollah has needed a support system for its disabled and the families of the dead. But the first priority of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, as of his masters in Tehran, is to preserve the Assad regime in Syria. Embarking on a war with Israel would divert Hezbollah from its current effort. Losses to the IDF would weaken the grip of Assad and the Iranians on areas still under their control in Syria. Such losses would also expose Hezbollah to attacks by Sunnis in Lebanon.

Nasrallah’s arsenal

Remember that over the past decade Iran has helped Hezbollah increase its vast arsenal of rockets and missiles, amounting to 130,000, according to Israeli intelligence estimates. Iran has done so for its own strategic reasons.

Dan Halutz, Amir Peretz, and Ehud Olmert.Credit: GPO, Kobi Gideon, Dan Keinan

But in 2006 the Islamic Republic was furious when it learned belatedly of Nasrallah’s orders to abduct an Israeli soldier on the border, an incident that led to the 2006 war. After the fighting the Iranians curbed Nasrallah’s independence. Tehran was chiefly concerned with an Israeli attack on its nuclear installations.

Hezbollah’s accurate rockets aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa helped deter Netanyahu as he considered a strike on Iran. Since the signing of the nuclear accords last year in Vienna, Iran’s nuclear plan hasn’t been the focus of the region’s attention. But as long as Iran believed Israel might attack, these missiles were kept as a deterrent against Israel. Under the present circumstances, it seems Iran has no interest in another military confrontation with Israel, which would degrade Hezbollah and its arsenal without necessarily achieving a strategic goal.

The third reason for the calm is the mutual deterrence. Israel proved in 2006 that it can badly batter Hezbollah. There was the bombing of Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood, Hezbollah’s stronghold, and the massive damage inflicted on Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon, which housed command posts and depots. All this apparently made Nasrallah think twice before embarking on another round with Israel.

But the coin has a flip side. Israel knows that Hezbollah can rain 1,500 rockets and missiles down on the home front daily. And it’s aware of the vulnerability of its power stations, ports and airports, and its missile-defense system’s inability to totally protect Israelis.

No war is free of disasters and failures. Still, those 34 days in the summer of 2006 were particularly dismal. Israel’s operations were marred by the low preparedness of the IDF, which had cut down on training and devoted most of its resources in previous years to fighting Palestinian terror.

At the same time, the generals convinced themselves that chasing a Palestinian suicide bomber from Nablus to Tel Aviv was a great way to prepare for Hezbollah’s well-trained and well-equipped fighters in Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbail.

The Second Lebanon War, 2006.Credit: Flash 90

The failure was exacerbated by the inexperience of the three men at the top – Olmert, who had suddenly assumed power after Ariel Sharon’s stroke, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was persuaded to accept his position without any experience because Olmert feared putting him in the treasury, and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, the great fighter pilot who upon his appointment explained that “one doesn’t have to be a sheep to lead the herd.”

But during the war Halutz’s cluelessness about ground operations became critical when approving brigade- and division-scale offensives. The trio’s lack of experience was inversely proportional to their arrogance during the fighting, an attitude that collapsed in a roar amid their paltry achievements.

Basically, Olmert’s cabinet approved a massive attack on Hezbollah’s mid-range rocket sites without realizing that this meant a declaration of war. And the ministers weren’t aware of the low preparedness of regular and reserve army units, the limited intelligence and the Northern Command’s outdated operational plans. When the airstrikes ran out of steam after four days, it was decided to continue the war without tweaking the objectives or examining alternate approaches.

Menacing Dahiyeh and Dimona

During the following four weeks, IDF divisions were moved around aimlessly, with the government and army incapable of defining a maneuver that would gain the upper hand. In the end, a cease-fire was achieved through French and American mediation, based on UN Security Council Resolution 1701. But Olmert, Peretz and Halutz insisted on sending troops further in a final push that cost the lives of 33 soldiers in 60 hours.

This final move was cut short before the cease-fire took effect, without achieving a thing or affecting the final agreement. Israelis’ instincts after the war weren’t mistaken. A total loss of confidence in Olmert and the army’s vigorous repair work since attest to the nature of the war.

Beirut in Israel's 2006 Second Lebanon War.Credit: Reuters

The missiles and rockets, whose numbers have grown 10-fold since, remain Hezbollah’s main source of power ahead of a possible future confrontation. In his speeches, Nasrallah stresses his organization’s capability of harming Israel’s home front. He says he can hit refineries and ammonia storage tanks in the Haifa Bay area, as well as power stations, ports and even the Dimona nuclear reactor if the IDF threatens Dahiyeh and civilian infrastructure in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s missiles and rockets can now reach the entire country, not to mention their improved accuracy, even if this only applies to a few thousand of the projectiles. Hezbollah is also relying on the combat experience gained by its officers and soldiers in the Syrian war, vis-a-vis the IDF’s advantages in technology and intelligence. Fighting alongside Iranian and Russian officers in Syria has also helped Hezbollah improve combat techniques while acquiring experience in employing larger formations that include aircraft, armor and intelligence.

On the other hand, the IDF has intensified training and changed its operational plans accordingly. It has improved armored equipment and vehicles at emergency storage sites, even though a recent report shows a renewed decline in this area.

The main improvement seems to be the integration of the air force and Military Intelligence. Since the 2006 war, much effort has been devoted to deciphering the way Hezbollah conceals and uses its forces in Lebanon. The IDF now has accurate intelligence regarding thousands of targets, and changes in the air force enable attacks at a much higher success rate than a decade ago.

The big question mark is the effectiveness of such moves, impressive as they may be, on Hezbollah’s fighting spirit. The army considers something the public may not necessarily realize – missiles and rocket fire will continue until a cease-fire is achieved, and the damage to the home front will be unprecedented, even if the damage to Lebanon is substantially larger.

There is a school of thought in the General Staff that the response next time should be based on an extensive ground operation that would complement air power. Others, especially in the government, advocate an attack on civilian infrastructure.

Ehud Barak, who as prime minister took Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, advocates a massive acquisition of interceptor missiles of the Magic Wand and Iron Dome variety. He thinks that’s the truly effective answer to Hezbollah’s missiles.

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