ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | What Could Not Have Been

What Could Not Have Been

13 August 2006 

By Yisrael Ne’eman

“Would have, could have, should have,” is the common refrain concerning the past six years when the Hezbollah dug into south Lebanon with close to 15,000 katuysha rockets and thousands of launchers. Suddenly everybody knows better and Israel certainly could have nipped everything in the bud. Once this war ends there will be at least one “Commission of Inquiry” to ascertain military preparedness and intelligence gathering. The second will deal with the collapse of social services and the inability to evacuate residents from the hard hit towns of Kiryat Shmona, Tzfat and Nahariya. Government decision making and hesitation in ordering a ground offensive in the face of the Hezbollah onslaught may be the third topic.

A spirit of the times chronology is necessary so all those with excellent 20/20 hindsight can put it into perspective:

• During the late 1990s and into 2000 Israel was in peace making euphoria, especially with the Palestinians. The Four Mothers “peace campaign” of evacuating Israel’s security zone in south Lebanon (and never returning under any circumstances) was in full swing and many joined in droves. “If only we withdraw to the international border, Lebanon and the Hezbollah will have no claim against us.” So screamed Yossi Beilin and Meretz, the victorious Labor Party led by Ehud Barak in 1999 and plenty of centrist voters. Always sensitive to casualties, the Israeli population wanted out of Lebanon and a defensive line was built on the international frontier as mapped out by the UN.

• The Palestinian violence broke out on Sept. 29, 2000 and was accompanied by Israeli Arab disturbances sweeping the north of the country in support of the Palestinians on Oct. 1 (and went for ten days). The army was confronted in Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the police and border police were being overwhelmed in the Galilee and East Jerusalem. During this ten day period two reserve soldiers were lynched in Ramallah by a Palestinian mob and three soldiers were killed and their bodies abducted by Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border. There are those who claim in retrospect that Israel should have taken major military action against the Hezbollah then.

• The Israeli army had just left Lebanon and much of the public was enchanted with the possibility of “End of Conflict” with the Palestinians, feared entanglement in the “Lebanese mud” and supported last chance negotiations with Arafat. The Israeli Left held power, were under siege but still held a fair amount of support until the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians failed in Jan. 2001. No one looked over the northern border and demanded a major incursion.

• Ariel Sharon was elected PM in Feb. 2001. He was most identified with Israel’s Lebanon complex since he was defense minister during the 1982 invasion to remove the PLO threat to Israel. Although aware of what was happening in the north, he had his hands full with the Palestinian violence (also known as the Second Intifada). Major terror attacks hit Israel – Dolphinarium Disco in Tel Aviv, Sbarro Pizza in Jerusalem and finally with the Emmanuel bus bombing in Dec. 2001. Israel intensified its policy of “targeted removals”, now possible after 9/11. In early 2002, the Palestinians pushed into a massive terror offensive and major Israeli urban centers exploded like never before. In the midst of all this, in Feb. 2002, a Hezbollah terror attack killed six near Kibbutz Metzuba on Israel’s northern border. There was no serious response by Sharon or anyone else. Hassan Nasrallah now built up his terror infrastructure with impunity. In March Palestinian attacks culminated with the Passover Massacre in Netanya and the Matza restaurant bombing in Haifa. The government was grappling with a major terror offensive and Hezbollah was encouraged to take over south Lebanon.

• Operations Defensive Shield and Determined Way were the Israeli responses and by the winter of 2002-03 Israel began to get the upper hand, so much so, that Arafat, under pressure from the US was forced to appoint “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as his PM that summer. US Pres. Bush revealed his “Road Map,” and by year’s end Sharon was speaking of a withdrawal from Gaza, despite Arafat’s removal of Abbas in September. Terrorism was down, but not eliminated, the Israeli economy shrunk by 1.9% that year, unemployment was over 11% (and probably much higher), social services were cut and Benyamin Netanyahu who was appointed finance minister by Sharon after he won the elections of Feb. 2003, deepened the hard hitting austerity program, further clobbering the poor, the ill and the elderly. There was very little choice if one wanted to turn the economy around in the middle of a security crisis. No voices were heard demanding an offensive against Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. A warning was sounded here and there by the army and MKs Effi Eitam (then NRP) and Efraim Sneh (Labor) but this went unheeded. Israel was preoccupied with too many other crises.

• By 2004 Sharon was cutting a deal with Pres. Bush for the Gaza Disengagement and acceptance of unilateral actions to be taken when dealing with the Palestinians. In return he got US support for the security fence, the future redrawing of the West Bank border, the right to pursue terrorists wherever they may be and the Israeli demand that no Palestinian refugees be allowed back into Israel proper. The summer of 2004 was fairly quiet, the economy bounced back and the north, especially the tourist industry and vacation spots, were enjoying unprecedented growth due to calm on the border. Was anyone suggesting an offensive against the Hezbollah?

• The general calm continued past Arafat’s death in Nov. 2004 and into the summer of 2005. Abbas replaced Arafat and a “hudna” (Islamic cease-fire) was in place. Sharon went through with his Gaza and northern Samaria Disengagement, causing major splits with the religious right and bringing the downfall of his own Likud party. He then established the centrist Kadima, suffered a stroke in early Jan. 2006 and was replaced by Ehud Olmert who then won the March elections. The Hamas took the Palestinian legislative elections that month and Kassam rocket fire out of Gaza intensified beyond the level of the previous five years (when Israel was still in Gaza) putting an end to the “calm”. Was now the time for a pre-emptive strike against the Hezbollah? Would there be public support?

• Only after the unprovoked abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit did Israel take large scale action against the Hamas in Gaza. Then Hezbollah chipped in with their own two abductions on the northern front and Israel went to war.

And who is responsible for the six year build up by the Hezbollah? We all are, from the naïve Four Mother activists and their followers to Ehud Barak and anyone else who was completely naïve or believed in “just of few more months of quiet”. Others, such as PM Sharon, knew they were putting off the Hezbollah problem, one that grew every day. They made some noise but not enough (let me include those of us at ME On Target). In the political and diplomatic climate that existed, Israel had no support to take the offensive, particularly with Sharon as PM.

Sometimes you just have to wait to capitalize on the other side’s mistakes, without hesitation and go in for the kill. How and if this was done correctly, is another story.