Two Israeli attacks changed the picture
The question of Olmert and his coalition is secondary. More important are Israel’s strategic assessment and its conclusions from the Lebanon War. The Winograd Committee stated its opinion on these matters in a press release accompanying the report’s publication: “We the members of the committee kept in view the chief purposes for which the committee was established, namely: to provide a response to the harsh impression that has prevailed in the Israeli public, a feeling of disappointment with the results of the Second Lebanon War and with the manner in which it was conducted at the political and military levels.” (My italics—AA.)
The key passage in this press release was this: “Overall, we regard the 2nd Lebanon war as a serious missed opportunity. Israel initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory. A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages. The barrage of rockets aimed at Israel’s civilian population lasted throughout the war, and the IDF did not provide an effective response to it. The fabric of life under fire was seriously disrupted, and many civilians either left their home temporarily or spent their time in shelters. After a long period of using only standoff fire power and limited ground activities, Israel initiated a large scale ground offensive, very close to the Security Council resolution imposing a cease fire. This offensive did not result in military gains and was not completed. These facts had far-reaching implications for us, as well as for our enemies, our neighbors, and our friends in the region and around the world” (“Winograd Committee Submits Final Report,”).
To overcome this general “feeling of disappointment” and strengthen his government’s standing, Olmert undertook two adventurist operations. The first occurred in September 2007: the air force attacked a putative nuclear installation in northern Syria. This attack led the Winograd Committee to soften its tone toward him. An additional factor was a change of defense ministers. It was the new one, former PM Ehud Barak, who oversaw the attack on Syria. Unlike his predecessor, Amir Peretz, Barak is an army man through and through.
In February 2008, two weeks after the final report was released, Olmert struck again—it is widely believed—on Syrian soil. This time the target was the military commander of Hezbollah, Imad Mugniyah. He was killed by a car bomb in Damascus on February 12. Here too we may see a continuation of the Lebanon War: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had proclaimed victory, and by this act Israel challenged him, provoking, as it were, a second round. The assassination has put Nasrallah in a dilemma. If he responds with military action against Israeli targets abroad, this will be seen as a terrorist act and will further isolate both him and his backer, Iran. On the other hand, if he responds on Lebanon’s border with Israel, he will give the latter a pretext for striking back and repairing its position, as the Winograd Committee demands.
Israel adapts itself to the new battleground
There are no second thoughts in Israeli military think-tanks about the decision to bomb the Lebanese infrastructure. The only serious rethinking concerns the readiness for a ground war, despite the prospect of higher casualties. In a speech to the Knesset on February 4, Olmert stressed that all his decisions during the fighting had been correct. If he had to decide again, he said, he would do the same things. Likewise, former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz (who resigned in the wake of the interim report) explained in an interview with Yediot Aharonot (February 15) that the decisions were logical from the standpoint of Israel’s army. Halutz admitted his error in waiting to mobilize reserves. “True, I thought it would end sooner. We had the idea that we would deliver a disproportionate blow so that the other side would understand it was pointless to go on. The other side did receive a disproportionate blow, but nevertheless it went on…”
In these few words Halutz portrays the dilemma that faced the Israeli establishment. Its basic assumption was based on the success of the American air campaign against Serbia in 1998 and against Iraq in 2003 (although the last turned out to be short-term). The idea was to avoid a large-scale ground campaign by exploiting Israel’s enormous advantage in the air and in technology, thus creating a shock effect. The massive air attacks were supposed to compel Hezbollah to hold the rocket fire and negotiate.
It was also clear that if the Olmert government were to send reserves by the tens of thousands into Lebanon at an early stage, there would have been hundreds of Israeli casualties, and public criticism would have been even sharper. The Israeli establishment no longer believes that it can maintain direct control over Arab territories, and Israeli society is no longer prepared to pay the bloody price of occupying them.
Tactical victories, strategic debacle
In the wake of the Winograd Report, Palestinian journalist Salah Na’ami wrote, “It is absolutely clear that the report calls directly for military action against the Arab sides in the future, even if this should bring many casualties on the Israeli side. It is not so clear how the Israeli political and military regime will relate to this reprimand, but in any case, those who prepared the report have called indirectly on the army not to hesitate in taking actions that are fraught with grave danger. In the last analysis, one can say that the Winograd Report will push Israel in a more aggressive direction, making it less ready for compromises and political arrangements” (In Panorama, an Arabic newspaper published in Israel, February 7).
According to former Labor MK Uzi Bar’am, Israel’s soft point during the Lebanon War was its society’s unwillingness to make sacrifices for the sake of national goals. Bar’am, once considered a dove, accepts the notion that Israel might need to take steps that make it hard to reach peace. Its ability to reach a political solution depends, he says, on a strong army. The army cannot be strong unless there is a willingness to fight and die (Israel Today, March 5).
The Winograd Committee saw its task as that of restoring the army’s self-confidence and healing rifts in society. The Report includes no serious discussion of the basic question as to how Israel reached this point in its existence, with “a quasi-military organization” (Hezbollah) perched on its northern border. It says nothing about Israel’s relations with Syria—that is, its refusal to discuss return of the occupied Golan Heights in exchange for peace.
Instead we are asked to accept a series of fundamental and distorted assumptions that the Israeli establishment has promulgated since 1948: war between Israel and the Arabs is unavoidable, the hostility of the Arab world toward Israel is eternal, and political arrangements must be based on absolute military superiority.
The Israeli establishment likes to celebrate tactical victories, when its soldiers or jets carry out some audacious action. These victories are always short-lived. The Arab schism—between the supporters of America and the extremist Islamic forces—lengthens their effect. In the middle and long range, however, the aggressive security policy promoted by the Winograd Report only fosters more warfare. We have yet to see a political movement that grapples with the basic political facts of the Middle East. The first of these facts is this: if peace is to be achieved, Israel must end the occupation of Arab lands.