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
In short, Israel’s decision-making process, in both the political and the military leadership, was terrible. After four days of airstrikes, Olmert could have simply announced that the operation achieved its goals and declared a ceasefire. Instead, he hesitated for four more weeks, while releasing ever more arrogant public statements. Worst of all, the IDF failed in its attempts to stop Hezbollah’s bombardments, while almost a third of the Israelis were confined to bomb shelters. To top it off, Olmert ordered the army to make a last-ditch attempt and occupy parts of Southern Lebanon, just as the U.N. Security Council had approved a ceasefire resolution. Thirty-five Israeli soldiers died in the last 60 hours of the war—a period during which nothing of any military or political value was achieved.
The 2006 Lebanon war ended in failure, not defeat. Failure was not a word that Israelis were used to associating with the army, to which so much of the nation’s finances are dedicated and in which their sons and daughters spend years of mandatory service. The lesson of the war for most observers and participants alike was that the strongest army in the Middle East could not stop a few thousand Hezbollah fighters from shooting rockets at the Galilee until the last hour. No wonder that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah became, at least for a period of time, a hero to the Arab world. This created deep mistrust in both the army’s commanders and actual capabilities among the Israeli public. Some reservist soldiers, returning from Lebanon, even took to the streets, attempting to imitate the huge reservist demonstrations after the Yom Kippur War that swept the country and pushed Golda Meir out of office.
Enter Gabi Ashkenazi. The IDF’s new chief of staff, called back into the army after Halutz’s resignation in February 2007 (he had retired in 2005, when Sharon chose Halutz over him), had been portrayed as the exact opposite of his predecessor. Israeli TV’s favorite satirical show, Eretz Nehederet, loved to present Ashkenazi as a tough guy, eating a pita filled with sand, singing grunt songs, and explaining: “Don’t think for a minute that I’m the hostess who was here before me.” He is, in truth, much shrewder than he seemed both in his political instincts and in his deep understanding of what went wrong in the Lebanon war.
Ashkenazi quickly realized that the army needed a return to the basics: thorough operational plans and, more than anything else, better training. The IDF had neglected training in those hectic years of chasing Palestinian suicide bombers. Commanders’ courses were extended, and so were their terms in office. A few incompetent generals were removed from their jobs. Equipment and weapons for combat units were improved, and gradually the reservists’ trust in the system which they felt had betrayed them in Lebanon was rebuilt. The chief emphasized the need to supply forces on the ground with quick, precise intelligence—a serious weakness displayed by the IDF during the war in 2006.
Ashkenazi also grasped that time was against him. According to President George W. Bush’s memoirs, by spring 2007, Israeli intelligence had gathered information about the Syrian plan to build a nuclear reactor, secretly assisted by North Korea. The chief of staff was probably aware that an Israeli decision to strike might lead to a full-scale war with Syria. The army, he knew, had to be better prepared, and this should be done very quickly. (President Bashar al-Assad held back and did not to retaliate until after the strike in September 2007.)
While the chief labored furiously to improve the IDF’s image, he also worked to improve his own. He refused to grant interviews to the media, while holding numerous “background” meetings with journalists and giving many public speeches. The message was clear: The man in charge is focused not on words but on action. My only job, he was fond of saying (to me and others), is to make sure that after Israel’s next war nobody would need to ask who had won. Ashkenazi used the Israeli public’s need for correction after Lebanon very effectively to his advantage. The government approved substantial additions for the defense budget, many officers involved in the fiasco worked extra hard to compensate for their mistakes, motivation for service in combat units sky-rocketed among new recruits. Olmert played along, assuming that the only way to slightly improve his beaten public image would be proven military successes—the strike that destroyed the nuclear reactor, but also two mysterious assassinations of a Syrian general and his Hezbollah counterpart, airstrikes against Iranian weapon convoys in Sudan, and most important, Operation Cast Lead, a small-scale war against the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.
Cast Lead was marketed as the ultimate test of a new, improved IDF that had learned from its mistakes in Lebanon. Both the prime minister and the IDF leadership had chosen the target very carefully. Hamas was much less a formidable foe than Hezbollah. When it provoked Israel, after the collapse of an informal ceasefire along the Gaza border, the army reacted forcefully. This time, the IDF was well-prepared. The Southern Command, led by another tough-guy, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, handled an organized ground offensive that pushed Hamas fighters to underground hideouts in the Gaza City center but avoided a final confrontation, which could have cost Israel more casualties. When a new ceasefire was announced three weeks into the operation, most Israelis were satisfied, and their faith in the IDF’s capabilities was restored (though not their trust in Olmert’s leadership). Gabi Ashkenazi was Israel’s most popular public official. The IDF’s skilled spin doctors managed the perfect stunt: The army killed many Arabs (about 1,300), hardly suffered any casualties (13, almost half of them from friendly fire), and the soldiers came out of Gaza smelling like roses.
Several weeks passed before a more complicated picture was established: A large number of Palestinian casualties, it turned out, were civilians. Then came the Goldstone Report—exaggerated, biased against Israel, later revealed to be deeply flawed (by, among others, its own author)—but at the moment of publication quite damaging. The result: growing anti-Israeli sentiment in the West, along with demands to prosecute IDF officers as war criminals at the International Court in Hague.
The IDF has definitely improved since 2006, but not to the extent that the Israeli public believes. Cast Lead was not a real test for the army’s capabilities. However, that operation might be closer to the sort of challenges the IDF will encounter in the near future, as Syria collapses and Hezbollah continues to export its influence and fighters outside Lebanon.
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