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Winograd Report Implications


05 February 2008

By Yisrael Ne'eman

“But did we win?” The answer is anything but “Yes.” Certainly no knock-out, but by the middle of August 2006 it appeared we were ahead on points. Today no one really knows, until the next round of course. Many believe Israel lost the war. And although the Hezbollah is quiet for the moment they are rearmed and gearing up for the next round sometime in the not so distant future. With the final publication of the Winograd Report in lieu of the Second War in Lebanon the IDF and the Israeli political system have once again been jolted. A majority of Israelis want PM Ehud Olmert to resign as a result of the “failure” to win the war against the Hezbollah a year and a half ago. He refuses, claiming he takes “full responsibility” and will continue initiating the improvements necessary in the army and overall preparation for the next encounter over Israel’s northern border.

To begin with there is much criticism of the Winograd Commission with many expecting personal recommendations to be made concerning PM Olmert, who is the only player still remaining after the resignations of the Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. Other generals also resigned. Members of the Commission made it clear that it is their job to point out exactly what happened and to focus on deficiencies and failures of which there were plenty. As pointed out previously in these columns, the Commission is correct in not passing judgment on whether the PM should resign, that is up to the people. Already the Supreme Court has become overly activist and is seen as usurping the power of the Knesset and government. The Commission behaves very much as a judicial body, even if ad hoc, but it is certainly not responsible for crowning or de-throning prime ministers and should not take over the job of the people. Olmert gets a grade somewhere around a “D+”, hardly encouraging when leading a nation constantly under threat of attack.

The IDF came in for the most scathing criticism, mostly over what was already known. Halutz the air force general believed aerial bombing could solve most problems along with special unit operations and the usual help from the enlisted men. Ground forces were expected to remove the Hezbollah offensive line overlooking Israel by moving a kilometer or two inside Lebanon. Command and control, conflicting orders and unclear objectives bogged down what was supposed to be a fairly simple operation. It took a month and barely succeeded, especially when the original military objectives took a back seat to “consciousness” or “media” targets such as Bint J’bel a village of 70,000 seen as a Hezbollah symbol because of Hassan Nasrallah’s famous “Spider Web” speech where he ridiculed the IDF. The air force was very effective but one does not win a war destroying short range rocket launchers from the air, when they are replaced a few minutes later. Rather the launch zones must be captured, and that means a ground offensive.

Special units are just that, “special”, they do not win wars, and as for the enlisted army, they can take the lead at best but are dependent on the reserves to gain an overall victory. Unfortunately the enlisted army was battling Palestinian terror and not ready for a real war. For years the military suffered from cutbacks across the boards, but in particular training schedules for the reserves barely existed, hence even a call-up would first need a week of maneuvers before putting anyone on the battlefield. Yes, there were contingency plans as such drawn up by former defense minister and former army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz (today transport minister), but the plan was only partially implemented very late in the game. And as everyone knows, neither the former defense minister nor the PM were military men and they were led into a ground war by an overly self-confident air force general. The Report sees decision making as disorganized, haphazard and not directed at achieving a specific objective. It often seemed that the army mission was to kill as many Hezbollah extremists as possible (not a bad idea in itself) without the objective of halting katuysha rocket fire into Israel or breaking the back of Nasrallah’s Khomeinist Islamists. Overall the average soldier fought well but the upper level command performed poorly.

The last 60 hours of the war became the main focus of attention and “somehow” Olmert and everyone else came out without condemnation. With a UN cease-fire on the horizon why did Israel continue ground action and even make a major push into the Saluki river bed (inside Lebanon just west of the Galilee panhandle)? It was thought that a victory here would improve the terms of the UN cease-fire. There are arguments for and against. The bottom line is that the Saluki push was less than successful and 33 soldiers were killed in the last two and a half days (including the central and western sectors). The Report does not condemn the decision but shows great understanding for the dilemmas faced by the decision makers. Why?

Throughout Israel’s wars there has always been that last push to improve one’s position before the cease-fire. It January 1949 during the War of Independence we worked to cut off the Egyptian army completely at Rafiah in southern Gaza but lack of battlefield success and British intervention halted what quite possibly would have been the collapse of the Gaza salient which we suffer from until today. Just imagine how different everything would look if the entire Gaza issue was in Al-Arish and northeast Sinai. In 1967 Israel captured the Golan on June 9-10 (171 killed) after the Four Day War was over with the defeat of Egypt and Jordan. This window of opportunity removed the immediate Syrian military threat from Israel’s northeast front and gave Israel a buffer during the Yom Kippur War. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War Israel made a double push during and after the cease-fire, one on the Egyptian side of the Canal Zone at Suez City (a dismal failure with dozens killed) and the other become the great success of recapturing the Hermon mountain peak position so important for Israeli intelligence (dozens more casualties) but lost on the first day of the war. In the 1982 First Lebanon War the last minute push into Sultan Ya’akub by the armored corps turned into a disaster when confronted with anti-tank fire directed by Syrian and Palestinian commandos (Ehud Barak commanded the operation).

Had there been a total victory in the last 60 hours with immediate defined objectives being obtained the atmosphere would be quite different. It comes down to the bottom line that the soldiers “died in vain” not that they became casualties. Much of the operation was in removing Hezbollah from the border areas but it was done in such a slovenly fashion by the higher command as to make victory virtually impossible. The war had been executed in an incompetent manner during the first four weeks and therefore none should have expected that another 60 hours would make a difference, hence many believe, no last minute offensive should have been ordered. Such an argument makes sense based on the immediate battlefield performance at the time but it certainly does not categorically rule out last minute offensives. A major success in the last 60 hours may have even freed the PM from his declared objective of returning the two abducted soldiers, Regev and Goldwasser.

Yes, Olmert should resign but not necessarily because of the populist reasons bantered about. A major call-up and ground offensive should have been ordered previously, just as envisioned by Mofaz when he served in Ariel Sharon’s second government. Contingency plans written up by qualified ground commanders are to be used effectively, not thrown out. Secondly, his judgment concerning the last 60 hour push was faulty based on the previous month’s experience. The upper level command was incompetent and upon having it proven to him time and again the conclusion should have been drawn that the objectives during the last push would not be achieved. The reach was too far in too short a time frame.

Diplomatically, UN Resolution 1701 was a success at the time, but no longer. The resolution is constantly violated through weapons imports from Syria and Iran to the Hezbollah. True the Lebanese army and the UN are deployed in south Lebanon, but it appears they may have become a human shield for the Hezbollah unless they flee should a conflict break out. The Israeli public is in the dark about what is happening in south Lebanon and deserves an explanation.

No less weighty than all other reasons is the fact that PM Olmert is now the center of attention and virtually all political activity. A dangerous political paralysis is setting in. Time is wasted with arguments pro and con as to whether he should resign. He, as the ultimate divisive political personality must remove himself from the national focus and attention so energies can be spent on political decision making to ensure national rehabilitation. Using his experience Olmert can help correct the wrongs of the past, but not as a serving prime minister.

Either someone else from the ruling Kadima faction should become prime minister or there needs to be an agreed upon date for new Knesset elections.