18 August 2006

Lebanon: What happened, and what is to be done?

This is a guest post by Ami Isseroff. Warning - a long post for serious readers only.

The aftermath of the Lebanon disaster may be worse than the disaster itself. An air of unreality surrounds the debate and analysis by different leaders and public figures in Israel.

Israel has lived by two maxims since 1948:

  • Even if nothing else works right, the army and the defense department can be counted on to do the job.
  • Whether we are doves or hawks, we understand that without the IDF Israel would not exist for a year, peace treaties or no peace treaties.

Never mind 1948, when there was virtually nothing here. In 1956 and 1967, it took a year to get a telephone installed in Israel, and then it never worked anyway. The whole country was an animation of an Ephraim Kishon story. Getting an official document from the Ministry of Interior was a five year plan. Israel had a Milo Minderbinder economy, literally. Factories made money by buying detergent for 2 cents in Germany, shipping it to Israel, packaging it and selling it back to the Germans for a penny, making a 1 cent profit thereby. New immigrants lived in tents and shacks. Public "servants" were just as likely to tell you to go to hell as to do their jobs. Nothing happened on time, and almost nothing worked.

The IDF worked magnificently, however. It was born of the Haganah, a small, tough force that had many of the characteristics of the current Hezbollah, and it retained these characteristics even as it grew into a modern mechanized fighting force. Arms were purchased where it was possible to purchase arms, and strategic and tactical solutions were improvised using what was available. The results were spectacular. This strength made progress toward peace possible. Everyone understands that the strength of the IDF, and not the humanitarian ideals of our Middle Eastern neighbors, must be the cornerstone of any Israeli foreign policy.

Today great glass and concrete buildings in Herzliyah Pituach attest to the supposed economic strength and viability of Israeli society. Telephone, Internet, Wi-Fi all work with Western efficiency, and Israeli firms attract billions in foreign investment and export revenue. This created the illusion of invulnerability and sowed the seeds of complacency. This war exposed the illusion.

The war demonstrated that the IDF and the Defense Ministry and the entire government decision-making apparatus are no longer functioning properly.

There was not one problem, or one mistake, but numerous mistakes that show a systemic malaise:

  • Facing the missile threat for six years and failing to provide a solution or a defense of any kind.
  • Saving money on reserve training so it could be squandered on settlements and frills.
  • Deciding to attack when there was no solution for the anti-tank missiles - a known threat.
  • Deciding to attack when there was no solution for the rockets raining down on Israeli cities, and no civil defense in place.
  • As in 1973, depending on USA for vital weapons that USA held up for political reasons.
  • Failure to call up reserves before attacking. This left the Golan at the mercy of the kind Mr.
  • Assad for many days, and also meant that there were no ground troops to throw into the battle when the air assault failed.
  • Reliance on the same absurd American tactics that failed in Vietnam - bombing from above when the enemy is underground and trying to bomb supply routes of guerillas.
  • Failure to make a realistic assessment of progress in the first days, when the air-attack was failing.
  • Basic logistics failure - reserve units reached the front with no food and missing other basic supplies and equipment.
  • Failed diplomacy and a failed strategy that did not achieve the essential, vital goal of the war: getting international action to disarm the Hezbollah.

In this war, the IDF, or the civilian direction of the IDF, abandoned all of the proven Israeli military doctrines: to carry the war to the enemy immediately, to act quickly because the war must be brief, never to give up ground taken in battle. Each of these absurd and obvious mistakes cost many lives. How many people died in order to take and retake Bint el-Jbail?

Compare this war, and its results, with the results of the great Israeli setback in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, to comprehend the gravity of the current situation. In 1973 Israel was caught unawares. Three Egyptian armies came pouring across the Suez Canal in the south. In the north, over a thousand Syrian tanks stood ready to overrun the Galilee and go racing to the sea, with nothing to stop them but 150 inadequate obsolete Israeli tanks with no night vision capability and inferior armor and firepower. Hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers faced the IDF. What happened then? A massive national effort was launched. Within hours of the first disaster, men, armor and artillery were pouring into the gap. Incompetent commanders were replaced within hours of the beginning of the fighting. Over 2,000 Israeli soldiers gave their lives, sometimes in fruitless counterattacks, but in the end, the situation was saved. In three weeks of war Israel destroyed over 2,000 Syrian and Egyptian tanks, surrounded the Egyptian Army and captured additional Syrian territory. This was called a "mechdal" - a failure. The IDF "failure" may be compared with the glorious victory of the Red Army in the battle of Kursk. Like the IDF, the Soviets destroyed over 2,000 Wehrmacht tanks. However, in doing so, the Soviets lost about 2,000 tanks of their own. The IDF lost 400 tanks in 1973. That was the "failure" of the IDF in 1973 that was the subject of a national outcry and a commission of investigation.

In this war the IDF did not face hundreds of thousands of troops equipped with the latest weapons, but only a handful of fanatics with essentially World War II weapons. This war was not forced on us. It was a war of choice. Rockets rained down not in the Sinai desert, but in the heart of Israeli territory. Nobody in the government thought it was a big emergency. There was no general mobilization. Massive and tragic civil defense failures over many days were met with hot air pronouncements, but the head of the home front command was not replaced.

When eight soldiers were killed in Bint el Jbail the attack was paused, and when twelve more were killed in Kfar Giladi owing to operational stupidity, the great leader Olmert got cold feet and froze the advance entirely. Incompetent commanders remained in charge for nearly a month. A senseless attack was launched at the end of the war, when the outcome was known, to waste more lives for no reason.

Ehud Olmert was definitely correct when he said this war would change the reality of the Middle East. Until now, the rock bottom assumption that governed Middle East reality, was that the IDF was unbeatable and Israel could not be destroyed by force. The unnecessary war exposed the vulnerability of the IDF, and gave credit to the claim of Hassan Nassrallah and his gang of assassin dervishes that it is possible to vanquish the "Zionist entity" by force. The big crime of this war was not the loss of about 150 lives because of stupidity and incompetence. The big crime of this war could be that it has invited the next war, in which many thousands will lose their lives. That is what we must prevent at all costs, but there is no sign at all that the government, or the opposition, understand the problem.

In 1973 Israel was like a sleeping lion that was wounded but returned to attack. Today we are like a drunk who got insulted in a bar and went swinging wide with a broken beer bottle, only to wake up with cuts and bruises in a hospital, not knowing what really happened.

This war was not a failure of courage or of individual soldiers. IDF has not yet become like the incompetent Americans in Iraq, unwilling to leave their safe enclosures, unable to find the enemy for lack of intelligence and unable to subdue the enemy except by carpet bombing of civilians. In this war, Commando raids in Tyre and Baalbeq and elsewhere demonstrated courage, resourcefulness, ingenuity and willingness to sacrifice. All these were wasted because of indecisive command in the IDF and in the government. Like the Egyptian army in 1967, orders were given and remanded a half dozen times in a single night, and troops committed to pointless missions. How many times more can the Israeli government expect its citizen army to throw away their lives because of the decisions of fools and criminals?

The government is attempting "business as usual." The Israel Foreign Ministry continues to insist that UN Security Council resolution 1701 is "good" even though it does not disarm Hezbollah, and plainly will not do so, and will not prevent the rearming of the Hezbollah. With each passing day, the implementation of resolution 1701 looks more and more like a disaster for Israel as well as for free Lebanon, yet the Israeli government doesn't even seem to recognize there is a problem.

Mr. Peretz refuses to give up his post as Defense Minister, because, it is explained, that would ruin his chances to be Prime Minister. Perhaps this war should be called "The war of the Israeli succession." Perhaps it was all about Peretz's bid to be Prime Minister. A man who is totally ignorant of military matters, and who spectacularly proved his incompetence in a "hands-on" experiment, is directing the defense establishment of the fifth military power in the world, a state that is faced continuously with the threat of imminent annihilation. After wasting about one hundred and fifty Israeli lives and a billion dollars in a pointless and nightmarish military adventure, this man thinks that a grateful nation will make him Prime Minister. Peretz is right that Hassan Nasrallah won't forget the name of Amir Peretz. He will remember it every time he wants a laugh. Every Israeli will also remember the name of Amir Peretz, and how many people were killed so that he could play at defense minister and advance his political career.

Almost every Israeli leader has commented on the onerous responsibility that comes with the decision to go to war, knowing that many lives are in the balance. People - often good friends - will not come home. Widows and orphans will grieve. Ehud Olmert apparently was unacquainted with this reality. He went to war as though he was deciding on some new economic project. When it finally dawned on him that in war people can get killed, he was horrified and he froze. How can this man remain Prime Minister?

Clearly, the fault does not lie only with the Olmert government. The state of the IDF is the result of decisions that that date back many years. Over-reliance on the US and US supplied gadgetry that is never supplied when we need it was part of the downfall of the IDF in 1973, and in 2006 the same problem repeated itself. We were told that the big IDF that replaced the little and smart one, the IDF with the sophisticated American weapons, were absolutely necessary to fight a modern war. But this big fancy IDF faced an enemy that was very much like the old smart IDF, an enemy equipped with whatever weapons could be found, and relying only on spunk and ingenuity. The big IDF theory didn't prove itself. $3 billions a year in American military aid could not beat some junk military hardware. We also knew for a long time that the IDF was becoming a garrison army in the Palestinian territories. We also know that successive governments have gutted both the IDF and the Israel defense industries to save money, because business and social lobbies demanded lower taxes and more social measures. The robber came to Israel and said "Your money or your life," and Israel responded, "Take my life, I need my money for my old age."

The critiques of the opposition are likewise largely irrelevant. Avigdor Lieberman, as usual, insisted and insists on attacking everyone and everything in the Middle East. What would be the result of attacking Syria with the IDF as it is today? Benjamin Netanyahu, as usual, enjoins us to hold on to settlements. How can we hold on to settlements with no army to defend them, and what is the point of these settlements if they don't offer security? Yossi Beilin wants to negotiate, but no Arab country will make or keep a peace agreement with a weak Israel that cannot beat a handful of fanatics with anti-tank rockets. The same people keep saying the same things they always said, like parrots, in the face of an entirely new reality, in which none of the previous assumptions still hold good, and all the previously burning issues have become non-issues.

Chief of Staff Halutz is criticized, not for wasting about 150 lives and making mistake after mistake, but for a minor gaffe, selling his stock on the first day of the war. All the people responsible for the debacle seem to be secure in their posts, and no corrective action is contemplated. Perhaps nobody understands that there is a problem. Halutz's stock sale is overshadowed by only one other great scandal that preoccupies Israel: Haim Ramon will resign his post at the Justice Ministry. He didn't kill anyone. He didn't waste a billion dollars or burn half the Galilee. All he did was kiss a girl. That is the farcical unreality of Israeli society.

What is to be done? Clearly, the Israeli political apparatus at present is not capable of recognizing the problem or offering a solution The first step must be to realize the full extent of the problem and the gravity of the situation, to form a nonpartisan movement that will demand the resignation of the key government ministers and key IDF general staff officers who were responsible for all the different failures. A new government, and a new corps of senior IDF officers must then immediately take steps to correct the obvious failures, as well as to investigate the less obvious ones and find solutions. The remedies are not limited to technical corrections only, but must encompass the whole way in which the Israel government and society prioritize defense, and the entire current battle doctrine, strategic philosophy and posture of the IDF.

Ami Isseroff