The Wrong Man in the Wrong War

Never in the history of the state has a chief of staff managed to work his charms on a whole government the way Dan Halutz did during the Second Lebanon War.

If the army had done well in the Second Lebanon War, everyone would be strutting like peacocks. There wouldn't be an investigative committee calling the prime minister a failure in 165 different ways. No one would be demanding Ehud Olmert's resignation. There wouldn't have been a rally in Rabin Square. The prime minister would have received the backing of the public had he perpetuated Ariel Sharon's legacy of setting aside the Greater Israel dream.

The trouble began with the army being headed by an arrogant chief of staff who didn't supply the goods. Dan Halutz ran the wrong war in a country that drained our blood for 18 years, convincing the prime minister of the air force's magical abilities. With his authoritative bass profundo and his cocky self-confidence, he persuaded the government he could do what no army had done before - win the battle by air power alone.

The prime minister didn't know whether a land offensive would be necessary. He didn't know if there were back-up plans or if the army had mobilized reserve soldiers just in case. Did Halutz make it clear to the government ahead of time that this targeted operation might become a long war? Did he have any inkling that Hezbollah was capable of firing 200 missiles a day at the Israeli home front and turning the lives of a million and a half people into hell?

Halutz was a kind of magic wand in the Sharon camp. Once, when I expressed my doubts to one of Sharon's aides about Israel being capable of evacuating Gush Katif, the man whispered: Don't worry. Ya'alon will call in Halutz. He'll know what to do.

Olmert inherited Sharon's awe of Halutz's mythic power and brilliance. When the operation in Lebanon that became a war was discussed, Olmert was not presented with a variety of options to choose from. It was not the job of the prime minister and his cabinet to check whether the army was prepared, and what would happen in the event of x, y or z. Without diminishing the prime minister's responsibility, the goals Halutz promised were not achieved.

In democratic countries that have been through wars, it is not the norm for the army and its chief of staff to take the government for a ride. As defense minister, Sharon, greatly admired by Menachem Begin for his glorious military past, dragged Begin into Operation Peace for Galilee. What was meant to be a brief incursion to establish a 40-kilometer buffer zone took us to Beirut in a hallucinatory bid to replace the Lebanese government and culminated in years of bloody warfare.

Olmert, clueless like Begin on military matters, fell under the spell of another proactive general, bringing about not only the Second Lebanon War but also the Second War of Deception.

Never in the history of the state has a chief of staff managed to work his charms on a whole government. Halutz walked in with one plan, revolving entirely around an air strike, which was supposed to bring about the release of two kidnapped soldiers. He presented no alternatives, and no one was allowed to open his mouth, from Amir Peretz down to the last high-ranking general. Halutz played god.

When it turned out we were entangled in an unplanned war, TV journalist Ilana Dayan asked Halutz if he wasn't afraid of a commission of inquiry. Glaring at her, as if annoyed by the very question, he shot back: "I don't care. I really don't care," as if paraphrasing Rhett Butler's last macho words to Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" - "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

When the enormity of the failure came to light, Halutz resigned of his own free will, maybe to prove he wasn't evading responsibility, or hoping that the Winograd Committee would be more considerate if he accepted the blame. Then he rushed to sign up for a course at Harvard, leaving behind the army, the generals and the prime minister to fight for their public lives on their own.

Halutz, as an air force man, took a bird's eye view of war. But when he reached the ground, he went limp. The ground forces were a mess. As commander of the failed Second Lebanon War, he ruined the reputation of Israel's power of deterrence and revealed its weak spot to the Islamic world: the home front. The classified part of the Winograd report probably has some uncomplimentary things to say about the Halutz era, with more to come.

But the failure lies first and foremost with the army, not the government. While Olmert may bear responsibility as prime minister, in the same sense that Begin was responsible for the first Lebanon War, based on the final outcome, it was the army under Halutz that led Olmert astray.

As the former commander of the air force, Dan Halutz was the wrong man, in the wrong place, in the wrong war.