We Told Olmert the Army Is Hollow

Senior commanders say the ground forces were left unprepared because elected officials repeatedly cut the defense budget.

Just one day before the evil came down from the north, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to the land of the bed and breakfasts and was given a briefing by senior Israel Defense Forces officers. One of them, Major General Itzhak Harel, who for two and a half years has been heading the Plans and Policy Directorate, took advantage of the opportunity to exchange a few words with the high-level visitor about the security budget.

"I will be completing my service in three weeks," said the major general, who did not realize his release would have to wait a few more weeks. "As a citizen, I am asking you to preserve a strong state." Harel went on: "The IDF is hollow. Don't cut any more from the security budget."

This was not the first time Olmert had heard the army is not properly prepared for war. The previous director general of the Defense Ministry, Kobi Toren, had sung him the same tunes when the prime minister came for his first meeting with the General Staff.

A short while after the cease-fire came into effect yesterday, a very senior officer in the IDF had the leisure to direct the wrath of the reserve soldiers, who are returning home with a kitbag full of complaints, at the political echelon.

"For eight years, ever since they cut the 1998 budget, instead of training and preparing ourselves for the next war, we were constantly asking ourselves how we could survive and influence the good people to remain in the army. For six years we have been fighting in the territories and we could not deal with the real threats. We learned to base ourselves on the regular army, and in the meantime a generation of reservists aged 26 and 28 has grown up, whose experience consists only of war in the fields of Gaza and Jenin. Had they given us another 3 billion a year - that is, 37 billion rather than 34 billion - we would have been much, much better prepared for this battle. It can be said that the air force and intelligence proved themselves, but on the ground we were prepared solely for war against the Palestinians.

"The IDF took efficiency measures in those years and endlessly discussed how to become more effective. But in the end you can buy a limited number of tanks and a limited amount of materiel. When reservists discover in wartime that the shelf is empty because the equipment wasn't purchased, they rightly feel deep frustration. Saving is an important value, but in our neighborhood you have to be alert and as tightly coiled as a spring. Thus we found ourselves with an air force that was prepared and an eroded land army.

"We are being asked why we didn't warn of the dire situation. I am telling you that for six years the IDF presented the bad situation to the political echelon, the heads of the security establishment and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee again and again. The Knesset members support us, the defense ministers are dealing with political difficulties, and prime ministers and finance ministers respond nonchalantly. I have a collection of articles about the waste in the IDF, and I am telling you it is lucky we have the United States. We have to give thanks every day to our only friend in the free world for the support it has given us in this war."

The senior officer also directs questions concerning the length of the war, after it emerged that the army is indeed "hollow," at the political arena. "When [United States] Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice came to Israel and went on to the Rome summit, and perhaps before that, by the G-8 meeting, we could have stopped the battle. At that point we could have obtained achievements on a number of matters without sending in ground forces.

"At that stage [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah was surprised and [Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora was asking for a cease-fire. Had we been more modest and attentive, we would not have had to face what happened afterward. But our people transformed the concept of time into something fluid, and we missed the opportunity to exploit the achievements of the air campaign to the fullest. We also did not see to it that parallel to the military campaign, a diplomatic campaign would also get underway. We should have created an international understanding that it is necessary to deal with Iran and Syria diplomatically and to recruit the world's support for Siniora to come out against Hezbollah."

In order to ensure that a crushed Lebanon does not fall like ripe fruit into the hands of Iran, the senior officer proposes that tomorrow morning Israel call upon the free world to declare a Marshall Plan to rehabilitate Lebanon. "We have to be the generator, in order to ensure that Iran does not pour in money and take over the country. Had we acted in this way from the start, instead of showing up raring to fight, Rice would have come here with the idea of rehabilitating Lebanon and strengthening its moderate elements."

With all the respect he has for the Americans, the senior officer has reservations about their total boycott of Syria.

"We must talk with the Syrians. This is the United States' opportunity to bring about a turnaround in Iraq. Syria can become a positive axis, but in our neighborhood no leader takes a bold step before he is convinced of its success. Look at [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. It is a pity that in the territories we missed quite a few opportunities to build a coalitions with the pragmatic forces. But the Palestinians have learned from the events in Lebanon that they don't interest anybody and that we are taking blows and not going anywhere. The time has come for us to look ahead and stop interfering with the middle generation in leading the Palestinian renewal."

If Ariel Sharon only knew how many of his colleagues are hurling fire and brimstone at him in the political corridors at the dawn of the cease-fire, the former prime minister would shut his eyes again. Sharon's place in front of the firing squad is being taken - unchallenged - by Minister of Transportation and Road Safety Shaul Mofaz, who during the past decade has been deputy chief of staff, chief of staff and defense minister.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz does not need to exert himself to roll the ball to the transportation minister's bureau. The new defense minister's work is being done by Mofaz's colleagues in the upper echelons of the Kadima party. They are receiving generous artillery aid from Mofaz's comrades-at-arms - major generals who had to send the soldiers into the inferno with worn-out flak jackets.

Next in line in the crosshairs are the leaders of the Likud, MKs Benjamin Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom, the finance ministers who prepared most of the budget books after the withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.

"I am waiting for the moment when Bibi [Netanyahu] and Silvan open their mouths," said one of the ministers closest to the prime minister yesterday. "Who is responsible for the empty emergency storehouses? Ehud Olmert, who spent a few months at the Finance Ministry? Who is to blame for the mess in the shelters? [Finance Minister] Abraham Hirchson, who went into the treasury a hundred days ago? Who cut 75 percent of the balancing grants to the local authorities and brought them to the brink of bankruptcy? [Interior Minister] Ronnie Bar-On, who has barely had the time to warm his chair in the Interior Ministry?"

The well-connected minister is convinced that if the prime minister is not sleeping well at night, it is not because of the fear of a commission of inquiry. He says that Olmert is torturing himself over the death of every single soldier. When the prime minister returns home at night, the minister continues, "Ehud doesn't need to converse with his wife. The expression on the face of Aliza, a known hater of battles, says it all."

The fire in Kadima is waning as the truce in the north lengthens. Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit, the leading critic of the war among the party's ministers, sounded calmer yesterday. Environment Minister Gideon Ezra shares his bellyaches with a circle of close associates. The former Laborites - Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Justice Minister Haim Ramon and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik - have been committed to the war effort from the very first moment. Of all those in the "cocktail party" called Kadima, the grounded Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has been most seriously wounded by the war in the north. Her associates believe she would rather quietly lick the wounds from the Olmert camp's blows than seek solace in the shaky Mofaz camp.

Minister without Portfolio and party secretary general Eitan Cabel, one of the few in the Labor faction who are remaining loyal to the chairman, says Amir Peretz is not afraid of a commission of inquiry. On the contrary - the defense minister has promised Cabel that he will leave no stone standing in the IDF until he exposes all of the faults to the light of day. He is convinced the government would have fallen had it evinced restraint in face of the Hezbollah attack and abductions. However, he blames Chief of Staff Dan Halutz for not having presented the government with a realistic picture.

"Halutz said that we would make dust of them within 48 hours, and it turned out that this was hot air. The gap between the expectations and the results is what created the demoralization," says Cabel.

Cabel expects that in contrast to colleagues from Kadima, who are expected to aim their criticism at Bibi and Co., his colleagues in the Labor Party, spearheaded by MK Danny Yatom, will take advantage of the opportunity to settle political accounts with chairman Peretz. "The Labor Party, which hasn't been in power in recent years, will again volunteer to take responsibility for all the blunders. Then we are amazed that the public doesn't want us," keens the secretary general. "It's like the homeowner trying to sell his house while his wife stands outside shouting that it is a lousy apartment."

Cabel, who established the reservists' lobby, believes the achievements in the military and diplomatic campaign could have compensated for the serious flaws that have been revealed in the reserve system and the preparation of the home front. However, because of the long delay in evacuating residents from the north, the picture of the war that will be etched in memory is elderly people stuck in the miserable shelters.

Cabel says the delay can be explained through one of the first government meetings at which the possibility of mass evacuation was discussed. The prime minister, who was mayor of Jerusalem in the past, spoke with pride about the inhabitants of the capital who remained in the city after 40 people were killed in terror attacks and about the inhabitants of the Gilo neighborhood who did not abandon it after long weeks of sniper shooting from Beit Jalah. Apparently Citizen Olmert realized with considerable delay the difference between life in the shadow of light arms fire and the fear of death from Katyusha rockets.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir, the politician closest to Peretz, has taken care to maintain a low profile so far and has refrained from criticizing the defense minister or prime minister. Anyone who wants to can find in her proposal to the two ministers a hint of her rich past in Peace Now. Tamir is proposing that after it becomes clear the cease-fire is holding up, Olmert - while consulting with Peretz - should phone Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and invite him to a meeting.

"We must take advantage of the earthquake to rescue Lebanon from the jaws of Iran and then try to get Syria out of there as well," she writes. If you like, this is the big victory that could rescue the two politicians from the jaws of political defeat, which even if it takes a while in coming, will indeed come.