The Magazine

Oy Vey!

Israel contemplates its political leaders.

Feb 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 20 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Herzliya Pituach, Israel

Last Wednesday night, beleaguered Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered the dinner speech that capped the seventh annual Herzliya Conference on Israel's security. Over the course of four days, more than a thousand leading members of the country's political and intellectual class attended the conference. Rarely had Olmert's audience been as united about national security. Unfortunately for Olmert, their unity embraced the judgment that he--and even more his hapless defense minister, Amir Peretz, as well as Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, an honorable man who only two weeks ago resigned as chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces--had proved themselves in the Lebanon war last summer unfit to continue to lead the nation.

The unity also extends to the assessment of the nation's three major national security challenges. The first concerns the Palestinians. Few Israelis believe that much good is likely to come of the three-way talks among the United States, Israel, and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas proposed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her recent trip to Jerusalem. Not that Israelis, including most on the right, are opposed in principle to talking with the Palestinians or doubt that, in the end, final resolution of the conflict requires the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Rather, a substantial majority of Israelis, including many on the left, have concluded that Abbas is too weak today and cannot deliver on any meaningful promise he might make. Moreover, the military establishment is dominated by the conviction that withdrawal from the West Bank anytime soon would do nothing so much as ensure that Hamas-launched rockets would begin falling on the center of Tel Aviv.

The second challenge involves Hezbollah. To meet it, Israel must learn the proper lessons from the Lebanon war. According to Yitzhak Ben-Israel, a retired major general and the head of the Israel Space Agency, in a technical sense the war cannot be considered a victory. The stated objectives were to rescue the two soldiers taken captive by Hezbollah last July in a cross-border raid (which left eight Israeli soldiers dead); deal Hezbollah a knockout blow by destroying Hassan Nasrallah's fighters and weapons; and enhance Israeli deterrence by showing Israel's enemies that, when roused, Israel will respond with devastating force. Israel met none of these objectives.

There is little serious dispute as to why. It was not, as many in the United States suppose, because Hezbollah's network of tunnels and underground installations and its anti-tank missiles proved too formidable for the IDF. As retired general Amos Yaron, commander of the ground forces in the first Lebanon war in 1982, explained, in that war Fatah had tunnels and underground installations, and in that war Fatah was equipped with anti-tank missiles that, while much more primitive than those used by Hezbollah in 2006, were more effective against Israel's much more primitive 1982 tanks. This did not prevent Israel from achieving, within a few days, its stated goal in June 1982 of pushing the PLO back 25 miles and, within the week, reaching the outskirts of Beirut.

The failures in Lebanon stem primarily from poor leadership. The prime minister, the defense minister, and the chief of staff were wracked by indecision. They focused too much on casualties and too little on achieving valid military objectives. And budget cuts over the last several years had impelled the IDF to reduce training and stockpiles of equipment.

Yet all this does not mean, as many U.S. critics of the Bush administration are only too delighted to announce, that Israel lost the second Lebanon war.

When pushed, many military analysts acknowledge that Israel's strategic situation in October 2006, after the war, was in critical ways superior to what it had been in June 2006, before the war began.