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Are the Israel Defense Forces Finally Ready for the Next Lebanon War?

Israel’s failures in 2006 foreshadow the challenges that lie ahead in a fractured Middle East—and the coming wars there

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Israeli soldiers control a Skylark drone during a drill on Jan. 16, 2012, near Bat Shlomo, Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to threaten Iran, another—perhaps more urgent—challenge has developed: the implications of the Syrian civil war and surrounding regional chaos on Israel’s security. The Arab Spring, with its ongoing creation of failed states on Israel’s borders, has become a major factor in Israel’s strategic environment. Since the beginning of this year, the Israeli Air Force has struck three times in Syria, hitting convoys and stockpiles of modern weapons systems before they were transferred to Hezbollah. The historical event that preoccupies Israeli military planners and commentators today is not the attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, or the tank battles of the Yom Kippur War, whose 40th anniversary will be commemorated this year, but the 2006 war in Lebanon, which showed Israel to be markedly unprepared for the kinds of future wars it is likely to wage.

It is strange, in a way, that the 2006 Lebanese war left a much more visible mark on the Israeli psyche than that terrible period of the Second Intifada, when more than 1,100 Israeli civilians and soldiers died within five years. Though the death toll of the Lebanon war has been much smaller (165 on the Israeli side), it remains a national trauma, nearly seven years later—a small Yom Kippur War, despite the absence of any serious military threat to the army or to the country. The number of books published about each event could serve as a good illustration. During the last decade, only three books were written by Israelis about the Intifada. More than 10 books were published about Lebanon, including soldiers’ diaries and novels. (The 1973 war, by the way, leads the list: Around five new books about the war were published every year in the last decade. In this anniversary year, more than 10 new books are expected.)

What’s clear is that the trauma is related to Israelis’ disappointment with the IDF’s stunningly poor performance. About a year before the Lebanon war broke out, the Second Intifada had more or less ended, if not with a decisive victory against Palestinian terrorism than at least with a general sense that the Israeli public had stood up to the challenge. It might have been our very unique version of that remarkable British stiff upper lip—which naturally involved much more kvetching. But when it was finally over, West Bank Palestinians seemed less interested in launching suicide bomb attacks, and calm returned to the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But then, suddenly, in July 2006, panic returned. Not only did Hezbollah surprise the IDF by killing eight soldiers and hijacking the bodies of two others across the Lebanese border, but the Shiite organization continued to shoot thousands of rockets at the Northern part of Israel for 34 days. The IDF seemed helpless in its attempts to stop the bombardments. Israel tried bombing areas from which Hezbollah launched short-range rockets—and failed. It bombed some Lebanese infrastructure (bridges, roads, a petrol reservoir at the Beirut airport)—and Hezbollah didn’t stop. It then went for limited military ground incursions—nothing happened. The last attempt occurred during the final 60 hours—a wider ground maneuver, but Hezbollah kept on shooting rockets until the ceasefire was announced.

The political leadership did not perform any better. The country’s new Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, had been caught far away from his natural element. The former mayor of Jerusalem, called in to fill Ariel Sharon’s huge shoes just six months after Sharon suffered a stroke, hadn’t shown any particular interest in security issues before. But even Olmert knew more about Israel’s strategic environment than his choice for defense minister, former union leader Amir Peretz. I distinctly recall coming home after meeting with Peretz, a week into his new job, suspecting that I knew more about the IDF than the new minister did—a feeling that I was not used to and that frankly alarmed me.

Peretz’s abilities did not improve over time. Both generals and government colleagues saw his performance in the Defense Ministry as a joke. (One was reminded of David Halberstam’s remark about Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War: “He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.”) Unfortunately, the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the last member of a bizarre triumvirate that included Olmert and Peretz, did not improve the general outcome. Halutz, a famed fighter pilot, had been handpicked for the job by Sharon. When ministers and advisers warned Sharon of the new chief’s absolute lack of experience handling ground wars, the elderly prime minister answered: “But I’ll be there.”

Sharon, it turned out, was wrong. During the war, Halutz spent three days in medical treatment for a mysterious disorder, later reported to have been psychosomatic. A day after the war ended, the Israeli newspaper Maariv revealed that the IDF’s No. 1 officer had sold $30,000 worth of stocks, a few hours after the soldiers were kidnapped. Halutz resigned five months later, and Peretz followed him in May 2007. Only Olmert remained in office until early 2009, when a series of corruption scandals forced him to retire. But the Israeli public had lost its faith in Olmert much earlier. Most public opinion polls constantly showed that less than 10 percent of the voters believed that he was fit to remain in office after the war.

Now there is a new trend among Israeli journalists and, even more so among politicians and officers who were involved in crucial decisions during the war, to describe the 2006 Lebanese war in retrospect as a mixed blessing.

***

This emerging revisionist theory focuses on the balance of deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah. True, there were some military fiascos, as in any military operation, the war’s advocates argue, but since Hezbollah had not dared to launch rockets at Israel after the war, Israel had actually won the conflict—as the quiet on our northern border attests.

The theory is, of course, nonsense. Nobody can contest that the IDF is a much stronger military force than Hezbollah or that the damage the Israeli air force wrought upon the Shiite quarters of Beirut was much greater than the devastation created in Northern Israel by Hezbollah’s rockets. Hassan Nasrallah has paid dearly for his mistakes: His Iranian masters, who evidently felt the attack was premature (and would like to retain Hezbollah’s capabilities in case they need the organization to retaliate against a possible Israeli strike on their nuclear program), ordered him to lie low ever since. But that, as Sharon used to say, isn’t the question. The question now must be: Shouldn’t Israel—considering the huge gap in capabilities—have achieved better results?

The answer is self-evident: The IDF arrived ill-prepared for Hezbollah’s challenge on its own turf. Israeli commanders treated incursions into heavily manned and equipped Shiite outposts as if these were mere manhunts for wanted terrorists in West Bank villages. The soldiers discovered that much of the relevant equipment for guerrilla warfare was missing: They lacked medical equipment and armored vests. There was also a huge problem regarding supply of food and water, as the IDF was allegedly afraid to send logistics convoys to Lebanon. Why? According to all accounts, operational plans were blurry, some nonexistent, and actual orders were unclear.

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PhillipNagle says:

The Israelis had an ally in the Lebanese Christians and they ended up deserting them. The price of that treachery was the failure in the Lebanese war.

ShalomFreedman says:

A very good and interesting article. I would have appreciated however more about Hizbollah Syria and Iran’s capabilities and what precisely Israel will have to contend with.
Also the budget cuts are apparently going to reduce what this article clearly believes is a most important pillar of defense i.e. The proper training of the reserves

Séamus Martin says:

An excellent article… apart from the fact that it takes no account of the new realities occasioned by events in Syria and assumes the next war will be against Hezbollah. As Alexander the Great once postulated, the most effective way to neutralise an enemy is to turn that enemy into a friend.

Hezbollah is now engaged in a life or death struggle in Syria against an enemy who is a much greater threat to Israel. Apart from the tiny Shebaa farms territory, Hezbollah has no territorial claims against the State of Israel, and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has long been on record as stating that Palestine must liberate itself. And there is simply no longer any upside for Hezbollah, Syria or Iran in aiding a Sunni movement such as Hamas, betrayers of Assad.

Israel continues to fret about Hezbollah and Iran, yet despite the rhetoric of old, these powers no longer have anything to gain from a confrontation with Israel, something which would only benefit those extremist Sunnis who have shown themselves to be the immortal enemies of Shias and Jews alike. Surely it is time for Israel to show some imagination and at least explore the new possibilities arising from what is going on in Syria.

Reptilian2012 says:

Hamas doesn’t have to fight Israel, Abbas didn’t have to decline Olmert’s 2007 offer, Arafat didn’t have to launch two intifidas to thwart the Oslo Accords, and Hezbollah didn’t have to kidnap two Israeli soldiers in 2006. These factions are one and the same, it is impossible to make peace with madmen.

TomJV says:

I shiver at the thought of what sort of answer I might get, but I have to ask. If it is impossible to make peace, then what for solution do you imagine to this problematic situation?

Reptilian2012 says:

The solution would be eliminating the incentives Israel’s enemies have to attack her and the means with which they do so, rather than providing them with more of both by hopelessly trying to appease them.

Séamus Martin says:

Describing one’s enemies as madmen is rarely conducive to achieving real, long-term security. Each side usually sees its own position as rational. So we can vent or we can actually knuckle down and achieve something.

Séamus Martin says:

I envisage a de facto, tacit alliance of Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq and Iran – basically the Shia powers – with Israel aligned against Sunni extremists, whether those take the form of Al Qaeeda or some of the Gulf monarchies. Shias have been viciously persecuted for over a thousand years because of their religious beliefs. Much like Jews, come to think of it. And in the Middle East, both have a common enemy who hate them with a passion.

Séamus Martin says:

Reptilian 2012, you need to broaden your vision and be open to the new possibilities opening up because of what is happening in Syria..

herbcaen says:

In the next war, Israel needs to bring tons of salt to the front to plow into Hezbollah owned land, just like the Romans plowed salt into the land of Carthage.

jzsnake says:

Great idea just ask Chamberlain.

Richard Provencher says:

Why Israel is unable to locate the stock of missiles sitting underground in Palestine is beyond me. That is the first step for the military, find them and bomb them, from within.

TomJV says:

I hope you will forgive me for still finding that a little abstract. What might those incentives be? What falls under those means you are mentioning? And what does eliminating comprise?

Reptilian2012 says:

Hamas, Hezbollah and their Iranian paymasters are bent on Israel’s destruction, as were the seven Arab nations who invaded Israel in 1948. Israel had to win several wars to before the latter group decided to stop its aggression.

Given the so-called qualitative advantage that Israel maintains today, it would be possible to get the same message across faster and more smoothly than the first time around. Such a move would involve cutting off the supply lines of Iran’s local affiliates, and dealing a fatal blow to their and their supporters’ morale.

TomJV says:

And would you imagine that to be done militarily or rather through Israel’s intelligence services?

Randall Ward says:

Wars must be won. Germany and Japan in WWII are good examples. Israel is in a tough position in the world and is too worried about world opinion. Crush your enemies if you are able. If I were the head of Israel I would give the Gaza strip one warning and if more rockets were fired I would remove, yes remove, every single human being from the Gaza strip to the interior. The Gaza strip would be new part of Israel. After that action their would be no more rockets from anywhere. But if their are more rockets then enlarge Israel again. I am not a Jew but Israel should do what is best for Israel. Better that a wound heals than bleed forever.

Reptilian2012 says:

Whichever prevents a war from erupting every few years.

Reptilian2012 says:

Israel always does, and they always restock.

TomJV says:

I actually meant war when I said military – I’ve got a bad habit of mincing my words – but I assume that you mean a war on, or uncomfortably close to, Israeli soil.

Reptilian2012 says:

Naftali Bennet described the issue very well in a recent interview on Israeli TV. He compared Hamas et al with a piece of shrapnel stuck in your butt: you can cut it out and suffer pain for years, or you can keep it there for now and endure the soreness until an opportunity to remove it arises.

privatedick says:

Part of the problem is just what you say: the missiles are hidden in very sensitive target areas. We saw that in Cast Lead, where the missiles were stockpiled in mosques and schools. The resulting “Israel blows up mosques and schools” narrative was too unpalatable for Israel to repeat. Rest assured, the stockpiles are known and targeted, and will be eliminated when the price is high enough to justify the blowback.

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Are the Israel Defense Forces Finally Ready for the Next Lebanon War?

Israel’s failures in 2006 foreshadow the challenges that lie ahead in a fractured Middle East—and the coming wars there