The Blindness of our Leaders
When a shepherd grows angry with the flock, he blinds the eyes of the lead goat causing the flock to fall into a pit (Bava Kamma 52a and Rashi ad loc.). I cannot speak about Hashem’s anger toward the people of Israel. (Rashi relates the metaphor to Klal Yisrael’s enemies and their leaders.) But about the blindness of Israel’s leaders there is no longer room for doubt.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a winning hand to play for the month of fighting Hizbullah that started on July 12. A million residents of the North remained calm, despite having to flee their homes or take refuge in bomb shelters, under a barrage of more than 4,000 Hizbullah missiles. The government faced no pressure from the citizenry to act precipitously or to bring hostilities to a close. Quite the opposite, the more that the political and military leadership dithered in ordering a massive ground operation in southern Lebanon, the more the public demanded a clear cut victory.
Nor did Israel face the usual diplomatic pressure to wrap things up quickly. Its principal ally the United States actively encouraged Israel to destroy Hizbullah’s capabilities and provided the diplomatic cover and time needed to do so.
About the conduct of the military campaign, many questions were asked from the start. Only for first 34 minutes of the war, in which the Israel Air Force (IAF) removed most of Hizbullah’s long-range missiles, did everything go smoothly. But even on the first night of aerial bombardment a crucial mistake was made: Hizbullah’s headquarters in Beirut were not hit at the outset, and the best chance to kill Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah lost. (Prime Minister Olmert was reportedly still upset enough about that failure last week that he denied Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who had counseled against an initial attack on Hizbullah’s headquarters, permission to travel to New York to participate in the United Nations deliberations over a ceasefire.)
Traditional Israeli military doctrine has always been based on taking the battle to the enemy far away from Israel’s borders. In this case, that would have meant heavy bombing of Hizbullah’s Beirut headquarters and landing Israeli paratroopers on the Litani River to work their way back towards the south from behind the Maginot Line defenses Hizbullah has built up over the last six years on the Israeli border. That was not done. Instead Israel contented itself with a week of exclusive reliance on air power, which entirely failed to suppress Hizbullah’s katyushas.
Thereafter the IDF embarked on a series of pinpoint ground actions aimed at destroying the extensive network of underground fortifications that Hizbullah had built up over the last six years close to Israel’s northern border. Those actions lasted over two weeks and caused the IDF to bog down close to the border without taking great initiative. Even after the IDF captured two major Hizbullah strongholds, it continued to absorb casualties. By remaining static, its soldiers became targets for Hizbullah guerillas emerging from various hiding places armed with the most advanced anti-tank missiles (which also proved effective against ground troops holed up in buildings.) Thus two weeks, after the IDF proclaimed the Bint Jbail was in its hands, Jewish soldiers were still dying there. Meanwhile, Hizbullah’s katyushas continued to fall unabated.
Not until last Wednesday, after four weeks of fighting, and nearly two weeks after OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam says an IDF plan for a large scale ground operation was in place, did the Israeli cabinet authorize a major ground offensive up to the Litani River. And even then, implementation was delayed until just prior to Shabbos, when tens of thousands of reservists went into battle, even though Israel was about to sign off on a U.N.-backed ceasefire to go into effect two days later. No one dreamed that the long-delayed ground offensive could achieve a great deal in the slight time remaining, and there is little evidence that it did. More than thirty IDF servicemen, however, lost their lives, in the long-delayed offensive whose goals were far from clear.
Until the end, the Israeli public remained confident that the government would somehow manage to pull its irons out of the fire, despite the disappointing military progress. A Yediot Achronot poll taken last week found that 37% of the public still believed that Israel would win a decisive victory over Hizbullah versus only 17% who did not think so. Yet in a poll taken after the cessation of fighting, only 3% said that Israel had achieved most of its goals in the war, and only 6% felt the U.N. Security Council Resolution to be favorable to Israel. Sixty percent of voters for the two major coalition parties — Kadima and Labor — said they would not vote for those parties if elections were held today.
OVER DECADES ISRAELIS have developed a deep skepticism about the U.N. And nothing in the most recent Security Council resolution bringing to an end – at least momentarily – the fighting will do nothing to allay that skepticism. Prime Minister Olmert claims that the resolution is a good one from Israel’s point of view, and that the deployment in southern Lebanon of Lebanese Army forces, in conjunction of a greatly expanded UNIFIL contingent of 15,000 peacekeepers, with French troops playing a lead role, will mean the end of Hizbullah’s state within a state in south Lebanon.
The former UN commander in Bosnia, Canadian Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, however, told the Toronto Globe and Mail that only a combat-capable force, with a robust mandate, could possibly prevent Hizbullah from returning in force. The proposed expansion of UNIFIL peacekeepers lacks such a mandate. No mechanism is put in place for interdicting renewed weapons shipments to Hizbullah via Syria, despite mention of an arms embargo. Similarly, the force has no explicit mandate to dismantle Hizbullah’s militias.
From Israel’s point of view, the Lebanese Army and an upgraded UNIFIL force led by the French are extremely weak reeds upon which to pin any hopes. Moreover, compliance with the ceasefire resolution will be determined by Kofi Annan. To most Israelis, these players look like a case of sending the fox to guard the chicken coup. As Ha’aretz’s Avi Shavit asked sarcastically, “Why did we go to war if not to ensure that French soldiers will protect us from Hizbullah?”
Between 30-50% of the Lebanese Army is drawn from the same Shiite population as Hizbullah, and units often show more loyalty to their ethnic groups that to Lebanon’s notoriously weak central government. During the recent fighting, the Lebanese Army cooperated with Hizbullah on numerous occasions, including lending its radar to guide Hizbullah missiles. Incredibly brave Lebanese journalist Michael Behe describes the Lebanese Army as “still largely loyal to its foreign masters [i.e., the Syrians], to the point of being uncontrollable.”
French attitudes towards Israel were on open display from the very outset of fighting. President Jacques Chirac spoke repeatedly of the Israeli response to Hizbullah’s firing on nine border communities, kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and killing of eight others as “totally disproportionate.” Meanwhile the French Foreign Minister Phillipe Douste-Blazy described Hizbullah’s sponsor Iran as a force of stability in the Middle East. France will do everything it can to reassert its influence in Lebanon. Protecting Israel or confronting Hizbullah is not likely to be its means of doing so.
Israel also has a long and unhappy relationship with UNIFIL. Five months after Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, UNIFIL soldiers stood by and filmed Hizbullah kidnapping three Israeli soldiers from Israeli territory. Subsequently, UNIFIL denied having any information about the kidnapping so as not to compromise its “neutrality.”
Of Kofi Annan’s “neutrality” Israel has had much recent evidence. Annan rushed to accuse Israel of deliberately targeting a UNIFIL outpost in the recent fighting and killing four UNIFIL soldiers. Annan surely knew how baseless that charge was. Whatever Israel’s feelings about UNIFIL nothing could have been more damaging to Israel than the deaths of those four soldiers. One of those killed – a Canadian – sent his former commander an E-mail only a few days earlier complaining about how Hizbullah fighters were surrounding the UNIFIL outpost and inviting Israeli fire.
Both the French and the Lebanese governments have ruled out any chance of disarming Hizbullah by force or confronting the group over its remaining 10,000 missiles. Douste-Blazy told Le Monde, that the purposes of the expanded UNIFIL force would not include disarming Hizbullah. “We never thought a purely military solution could resolve the problem of Hizbullah,” he said. “We are agree on the goal, the disarmament, but for us the means are purely political.” Mohamad Chattah, a senior advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, told reporters that the Lebanese government would not call for the disarmament of Hizbullah as required by Security Council Resolution 1559 or “forcibly disarm anyone.” “If we say disarm, it makes it hard for Hizbullah to give up their weapons,” Mr. Chattah explained.
Beyond the grave doubts about the likely efficacy of new Security Council Resolution in reigning in Hizbullah, the resolution contains two unmitigated disasters for Israel. First, the operative paragraphs make no mention of a return of the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah on July 12, and over whom Israel went to war. References to a subsequent exchange of prisoners, in effect legitimizes Hizbullah’s capture of the soldiers and holding them as bargaining chips. Secondly, the resolution explicitly reopens the issue of sovereignty of the Sha’aba Farms area. The U.N. certified in 2000 that Israel had withdrawn from every centimeter of Lebanese territory. By reintroducing the issue of Sha’aba Farms, the U.N. signals that as far as Israel is considered no borders will ever be final.
GIVEN THE PALTRY DIPLOMATIC ACHIEVEMENTS, Israelis were bound to ask why 150 Israeli lives were lost, billions of dollars damage incurred to the economy, and a million citizens turned into refugees for an agreement that could likely have been achieved weeks ago.
Already by Sunday morning, the knives were drawn and Israel prepared for a war of mutual recriminations and finger-pointing between the political and military echelons and within each. A national commission of inquiry, such as that formed after the Yom Kippur War, is considered a foregone conclusion.
Ari Shavit’s Friday piece in Ha’aretz, entitled “Olmert must go,” captured the mood: “You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce a humiliating defeat and remain in power. You cannot bury 120 Israelis in cemeteries, keep a million Israelis in shelters for a month, wear down deterrent power, bring the next war very close, and then say – oops I made a mistake.”
Much of the blame will ultimately fall on the prime minister – if forced to choose between blaming the politicians or the generals, Israeli society inevitably sides with the generals – but there is more than enough to go around. There is evidence of a general air of complacency on the part of the IDF. A friend of mine reported sitting next to a recently retired general at the most recent Herzilya Conference and being informed that Israel’s strategic situation has never been better, and all the traditional strategic threats have been removed. The IDF itself bears some of the blame for the fact that reservists who bravely answered the call to arms were sent into battle after years without any combat training and often with inadequate equipment. In some cases, parents and reservists themselves were left to raise the money for proper, up-to-date flak jackets.
Questions will be asked too concerning the fact the IDF’s level of alert on the northern border was lowered just two days before Hizbullah’s attack. And already recriminations by members of the General Staff over the fact that the entire first week of fighting was left exclusively to the IAF have filtered out to the media. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz is the first to come to his position via that IAF and that is blamed on the over reliance on firepower.
Neither the IDF nor the present government can be blamed for the fact that Hizbullah was allowed to amass an arsenal of 13,000 missiles. The decision to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000 was overwhelmingly popular. Once the Barak government declined to respond forcefully to Hizbullah’s kidnapping of three soldiers from Israeli territory five months later, and the Israeli public acquiesced, the die was cast. Despite warnings from many quarters about Hizbullah’s steadily growing arsenal, no Israeli government would have enjoyed the necessary public support for a massive military campaign against Hizbullah absent a provocation on the scale of July 12. It is time to acknowledge that the logic of unilateral withdrawal almost inevitably precludes a strong response later when things do not go as hoped.
The collective Israeli decision in 2000 was that Israel could no longer afford to lose 24 of its finest boys a year in the southern Lebanese security zone. That calculation, however, was not balanced in any way by an assessment of the potentially far greater long-term costs. As I wrote in the Jerusalem Post in August 1999, “Our Arab adversaries increasingly perceive us as a society that has lost its will to fight to such an extent that rational cost-benefit analysis is beyond us.”
In that same article, I mentioned that “resumed attacks from Lebanon would almost certainly result in a massive exodus from the North towards the already densely populated center” and that recapturing the security zone once we pulled out “would likely entail a cost in lives many times that now being incurred there annually. . . . ” Much of that has, tragically, come to pass.
But if one positive result has come out of the past month of fighting, it is the clear proof that Israelis have not lost the will to survive in the nasty region we inhabit. Unfortunately, the courage of our leaders did not match that of the citizenry.
Before making such a charge, one must stipulate that there is no more heart-rending decision that any national leader can make than that to send his nation’s soldiers into to battle with the knowledge that many will not return home. And, as always, those of us who have not faced that decision do well to recall the admonition of Pirkei Avos not to judge another until you have stood in his place.
Yet a national leader must also never forget that there are always two sides to the equation, and that lives spared now may cost many more in the future. Usually in a democracy, it is the population that refuses to take the second side into account, as in the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon.
But this time, the population understood clearly what was at stake, and how dangerous it was to leave Nasrallah in a position to boast of victory – not only for our northern border, but for all our borders. That is why after a month of incredible endurance, the Jewish population was still united behind a massive military operation against Hizbullah.
Israel’s citizens and soldiers did not fail the test; their leaders did. And the great tragedy is that it is almost impossible to think of any better ones to replace the current lot. Hashem has truly blinded the eyes of those who would lead us.
Published in Yated Ne’eman