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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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Theater of War

Israel beats its enemies on the battlefield, but it loses the more important fight, for PR supremacy, to savvier operators like Hezbollah

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.

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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.

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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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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