A Very, Very Painful Response

Israel did not make a serious effort to achieve peace with its neighbors, due to the belief that the Arabs wouldn't dare challenge its military superiority. This is the most interesting finding in the Winograd Committee's interim report.

1. Don't give in

"The Israel Defense Forces was not ready for this war. Among the many reasons for this we can mention a few: Some of the political and military elites in Israel have reached the conclusion that Israel is beyond the era of wars. It had enough military might and superiority to deter others from declaring war against it ... [so] that it alone could control the decision of whether to go to war ... [so] that the main challenges facing the land forces would be protracted, low-intensity conflicts. Given this analysis, there was no need to prepare for war, nor was there a need to energetically seek paths to stable and long-term agreements with our neighbors" - the Winograd report, page 20

This is the most interesting and thought-provoking paragraph in the entire interim report published by the Winograd Committee. In its convoluted language, the committee determined that Israel did not make a serious effort to achieve peace with its neighbors, due to its faith that it was invincible and that the Arabs wouldn't dare challenge its military superiority. The committee takes issue with the premise that has guided Israeli defense policy since 1991 at least, which is that the era of the big wars is over, and that the threats of the future are the Iranian nuclear bomb, Katyusha and Qassam rockets, and suicide bombers.

Criticism of Israel's complacency is nothing new. It has often been voiced by strategists from the right - such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Yuval Steinitz and Moshe Ya'alon, who oppose ceding territory - arguing that the wars are not over yet. The left, in the meantime, has supported withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights, arguing that battles prosecuted by the armored corps and assaults on hilltops are a relic of the past century, and that territory is irrelevant in the age of missiles and human bombs.

The Winograd Committee conflates this division between left and right. It accepts the right's assessment that Israel must prepare itself for war, and proposes the solutions of the left: "stable and long-term agreements with our neighbors." In its view, peace with the Arabs is a substitute for force, in a situation in which military deterrence is not all-powerful, the danger of war has not passed, and the Arabs have ceased fearing the IDF and its might. Therefore, paths to peace with the neighbors must be "energetically sought."

Which neighbors exactly? The committee does not elaborate on this. One can presume that it is referring to an accord with Syria. Israel has no other neighbors with a large army and hundreds of Scud missiles, as the Syrians have. The report also deals with the northern arena, and not with the Palestinian front, where for close to 20 years a "protracted, low-intensity conflict" has been under way. Thus, the Winograd text may be interpreted as follows: Israel believed that the Syrians are weak and intimidated, and therefore did not prepare for war and neglected the ground forces, and at the same time did not genuinely try to achieve peace.

This week, in the shadow of the storm, no one was focusing on strategy or diplomatic processes. But once the political dust settles, and a new government takes hold in Jerusalem, its leaders ought to give this paragraph of the Winograd report a careful reading. Perhaps they'll learn some lessons from it for the future.

2. The mystery

"Despite having read an extensive amount of material, and despite having asked many questions, we are unable to determine when, how and where the actual decisions were made to go to war on July 12.

"Our impression is that the prime minister came to the fateful discussions in those days with his decision already substantially shaped and formulated. We have no documented basis from which it is possible to obtain hints as to his process of deliberation, as to what alternatives he considered, nor as to the timeline of the decisions that he made and their context ... All of this indicates that the decision to go to war was made in haste by the prime minister himself, in a mostly informal process, for which there is no public documentation ..." - Winograd report, pages 122 and 133

What an embarrassing failure. After months of work, reading thousands of documents and hearing dozens of testimonies, the Winograd Committee was unable to figure out how the decision was made to embark upon the Second Lebanon War, who made it and when. This question, which is of supreme importance in understanding the dramatic events of the past year, will remain a historic mystery, a lost "black box."

Olmert did not break down under questioning. He did not reveal to the committee when he decided to go to war and whom he consulted, if anyone. The committee found him responsible on the basis of circumstantial evidence. It said it was "likely" that Olmert spoke with chief of staff Dan Halutz on the telephone, and "that he would not have taken a position on the matter without such a conversation." But nowhere is there any record of a conversation, or conversations, between Olmert and Halutz. The official documents only bring the two together in a security consultation at 6 P.M., nine hours after the abduction of the soldiers near Zar'it. If they spoke to each other before that, bypassing Defense Minister Amir Peretz, they did so without leaving a trace. From the published report, it's not clear whether military secretary Gadi Shamni, whose job is "to be on the line" in conversations between the prime minister and the chief of staff, was questioned about the events of the first day or what his responses were.

Omert received word of the abduction in the North when he was in the middle of a meeting with the parents of soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been abducted two and a half weeks earlier at Kerem Shalom, on the Gaza border. It's not clear what Olmert did in the next two hours or whom he spoke with. Afterward, he hosted his Japanese counterpart (at the time) Junichiro Koizumi, in his home, and at the conclusion of their joint press conference, during which he threatened a "very, very, very painful" response against Lebanon, he headed to the Kirya (Defense Ministry headquarters) in Tel Aviv. His bureau chief, Yoram Turbowicz, told the Winograd Committee that at that point: "It was clear to the prime minister that we had to respond forcefully." Olmert and Turbowicz knew that such a response would heighten the danger of the rockets, "but the fear of [the consequences of] not responding was much greater."

From this point on, all proceeded without hindrance. A security consultation, a cabinet meeting, a forum of "the group of seven" (made up of the ministers who are part of the security cabinet) - all served merely as rubber stamps for the decision Olmert had made in the morning.

The Winograd report confirms what was published here on July 14, right after the launch of the war, on the basis of much more partial information, and before the gloomy outcome was known: "The brief time that passed between the abduction and Olmert's announcement of a painful response indicates that his decision to undertake a broad military operation in Lebanon was made with record speed. That he had no doubts or hesitations. That the hours that passed between the press conference at noon and the cabinet meeting in the evening were not designated for a cooling-down of impulses and a toning-down of the rhetoric, as would have been the case with [Ariel] Sharon, but for refining the operational plans."

3. Saying it isn't enough

"We found no evidence that these plans were in fact presented to the prime minister or to the political-security cabinet in a full and orderly fashion, and in any event, they were not approved by them" - Winograd report, page 61

Olmert was prepared to field questions about his hasty decision to go to war, and in his testimony before the committee he said that from the day he took office he held "more discussions than his predecessors" on the situation in the North, and that he'd prepared for a break with the policy of restraint. The primary example of this change in policy was his instruction to the army to present him with its operational plans, so that decisions could be made ahead of time and not at the moment of crisis.

The committee found that Olmert had indeed made such a comment, in a meeting that took place on March 5, 2006, but that it was buried in the transcript. He did not ascertain that the army actually had any approved and practiced operational plans (there were none), and in any case he did not see or approve any such plans before the outbreak of the war. Olmert, according to the report, did anticipate that there would be an abduction attempt on the northern border and sought to prepare for it. But at the end of that meeting he stated that "the interest is to maintain the situation as it is, without opening another front in the North."

The Winograd Committee's conclusions match the impressions of people who took part in that March meeting, who remember a routine security consultation without any special decisions made.

Two months later, at a discussion in preparation for his first trip to Washington as prime minister, Olmert for the first time mentions the idea of a change in the status quo in Lebanon, via implementation of UN Resolution 1559, deployment of the Lebanese army in the South, a retreat by Hezbollah and its disarming. "If there's anything that could lead to the elimination of the Hezbollah threat, it interests me very much," said Olmert.

The report does not elaborate, but in that same discussion, Olmert heard a proposal from the head of the National Security Council at the time, Giora Eiland, for an accord proposed by the UN: Israel would withdraw from the disputed Shaba Farms in return for Hezbollah disarming and moving away from the border. The committee says only that Israel "dealt for a long period" with diplomatic attempts to bring about a change in the situation in the North, "but these initiatives did not amount to anything. The causes for the failure of these initiatives also stood at the foundation of the limitations on the military action in Lebanon in the summer of 2006."

What are these "causes" that led to the failure of the diplomatic effort in the spring and prevented the IDF from winning in the summer? The diplomatic sections of the report have been heavily censored, but between the lines one can discern that the American administration imposed close supervision on Israel on the day it went to war, and forbid it from striking at Lebanese infrastructure, especially the country's electricity network. The result was "that Israel's ability to deviate from the policy of containment was limited." The proposals from Halutz and ministers Haim Ramon and Eli Yishai ("If they're crazy, they need to think that we're insane") to strike at Lebanon's infrastructure were rebuffed. Now it appears that not only did the Americans prevent a bombing of the electricity network, they also thwarted the diplomatic effort before the war. If so, then responsibility for the war's outbreak falls on them as well.

This is the most serious strategic mishap that Israel has encountered: It went into battle with its hands tied, and crashed against Hezbollah's fortified lines and its thousands of rockets in south Lebanon. Olmert, who in March still understood that there were no genuine alternatives to containment, felt after the abduction that restraint was damaging to Israel and portrayed the country as afraid to attack because of the fear of harm to the home front. Thus was the policy of "containment" that Olmert had inherited from Ehud Barak and Sharon abandoned, without any substantial discussion or examination. Olmert's apprehension from back in March, that at the moment of truth he would have to quickly decide upon military moves that were not thoroughly prepared, became a reality in July.

4. Fear factor

Modern research on decision-making owes much to the studies conducted by Israelis Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They found that people are more inclined to take action when faced with a possible loss than with a possible benefit. The practical conclusion of this research is that in order to nudge someone into action, it's best to depict the situation in terms of loss, and when the aim is to preserve the status quo, it's best to talk about the benefit. Kahneman and Tversky call this the "framing" of reality.

The Winograd report confirms the research findings of Tversky and Kahneman, the latter a Nobel laureate in economics. The report shows that all the decision-making about the Second Lebanon War occurred within a "loss framework." The country was led into war under the shadow of the fear of the erosion of its deterrent power, and the threat that Iran and its allies want "to induce the collapse of the State of Israel, and maybe also of the American presence in the Middle East" (comments by the head of Army Intelligence, at the July 16, 2006 cabinet meeting).

Had he focused on the possible achievements of a military operation in Lebanon, and not on the threat scenarios, Olmert would have had difficulty mustering the support of the government and of public opinion. It's easy to enlist the nation's backing by instilling fear about "collapse" and a loss of deterrence. It's a lot harder to rally the pubic with slogans like "implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions" or "deployment of the Lebanese army in the south." So it's no wonder that Olmert was unable to convince anyone with his claim that his decisions were excellent and that the war ended with an Israeli victory. People remember the trauma, the dead and the missile strikes, and not the UNIFIL deployment south of the Litani.