Long Live the New Mistakes

The advantage Operation Cast Lead holds over Lebanon, and over other regular military operations, lies in intelligence achievements.

The fright that has overcome the government and Israel Defense Forces General Staff over the possibility that officers who served in Operation Cast Lead could face lawsuits abroad ridicules the pretensions of Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi to present themselves as farsighted and as having overcome the failings of the 2006 Lebanon war. It turns out that in late December, they did not foresee that by late January - following levels of killing and destruction not anticipated by the decision makers - they would need to protect the battalion commanders operating in Gaza. The military censor, which is under orders not to reveal the details of the September 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor, did not receive advance instruction to prevent the publication of the field commanders' names. Contrary to common practice regarding the identity of pilots, the IDF encouraged all media outlets to publish the officers' names. Bombing the Hamas archive is useless; the Internet is alive and kicking.

The efforts of the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff to market themselves as the IDF's rehabilitators have been marked by arrogance. The gap between arrogance and reality should be a matter of concern, ahead of the next confrontation, because - even though Olmert is finally on his way home and to court - Barak and Ashkenazi are staying on and will take part in difficult decisions in the future. They had a lot of time, essentially unlimited, to plan the operation that was meant to counter Lebanon. In 2006, the operational idea (and the political limitations Olmert rushed to impose on the General Staff) was to make do, as much as possible, with aerial firepower, without a ground operation. In Gaza, the plan was to complement the initial air offensive with a ground push.

In his testimony before the Winograd Committee investigating the Second Lebanon War, Barak spoke about the mistakes committed by the government and General Staff in Lebanon - in terms of both regulations and substance. Why did they rush to decide on a prolonged operation, rather than delivering a sharp but short response and then taking their time to prepare for the next stage? Why did they allow "shooting at the home front for 36 days," if limiting "damage to the home front had been a sacred principle for [David] Ben-Gurion"? Barak also said about the IDF that, "An army armed to the teeth, the best army in the world, must, when it is being sent into action, deliver a decisive performance."

In view of the time available to Barak and Ashkenazi - devoid of the workload that characterized the years before 2006, including combating terrorism and dealing with the settlers' refusal to be evacuated from Gush Katif - the result does not indicate that the new management is any better than its predecessor.

The old equation of firepower vs. maneuver has remained unchanged from the time Western democracies realized, as a result of the Vietnam War, that the deployment of ground forces liable to suffer many casualties exacts a public and thus also a political price. The 1991 Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s, and to a lesser extent the 2003 Iraq War as well - all indicate a preference of air power over land forces, not out of purely military considerations but because of political exigencies. The ground operation in the Gaza Strip failed to restore the past glories of ground operations. In order to minimize IDF casualties, the maneuver relied on heavy firepower. In terms of the cost to Israeli lives, this is a good thing. But presenting it as professional genius, aimed at correcting the mistakes of 2006, is just plain pompous.

Despite the principle so sacred to Ben-Gurion, Barak allowed the home front to become a victim of rocket barrages for 20 days (and several years more).

The advantage Operation Cast Lead holds over Lebanon, and over other regular military operations, lies in intelligence achievements, which provided both the air force and ground forces with targets. This was the achievement of the Shin Bet security service, which reaches every household - just like the officials of the national population census. But the use of this intelligence information in the operations in Gaza lacked ruse, flanking moves, attacks from unexpected directions, or the element of throwing the enemy off balance by deploying the special forces the IDF has built up over decades. And despite the centrality of the smugglers of long-range rockets, Gabi Ashkenazi's General Staff forgot to declare them worthy targets for assassination, equal to terrorist masterminds.

The "decisive" show in Gaza is merely a rehearsal for the next crisis, versus Hezbollah or Iran. From the recent performance we can infer that the army is almost always ready, more or less, at the same level. Barak and Ashkenazi may not have repeated the errors of their predecessors, but they did make new mistakes.