This is part 1 of a comprehensive analysis on the Israeli-Hezbollah war, by our khaver, Dr. Robert O. Freedman, professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University and a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University.
A Hezbollah Victory?
In the aftermath of Israel’s month-long war with Hezbollah, there have been an eruption of hyperbolic claims of “victory” by Hezbollah and its supporters. Some, especially in Iran, have gone so far as to claim that Israel’s “defeat” in the war means that the Jewish state is collapsing, and that the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which paved the way for the establishment of Israel, is being reversed. The reality, however, is quite different.
To be sure, Israel did not succeed in achieving the two war aims stated by its Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert: the destruction of Hezbollah and the return of the two kidnapped soldiers,Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Nonetheless, the war ended with Israeli forces occupying Hezbollah territory in Southern Lebanon, where they have been blowing up Hezbollah bunkers and underground storage facilities, not Hezbollah occupying Israeli territory. In addition, while Israeli cities and towns were hit by an estimated 3,700 rockets and hundreds of thousands of Israelis were displaced or seriously inconvenienced, Lebanon suffered massive infrastructure damage,as Israel sought to prevent the resupply of Hezbollah forces and the movement of the kidnapped soldiers out of the country.
The destruction, which Lebanon’s Interior Minister, Ahmad Fatat, termed a “catastrophe” angered many Lebanese, including members of the Shiite community, who complained that Hezbollah, acting as an agent of Syria and Iran, had brought devastation to Lebanon.Indeed, following the war, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was forced to admit that had he known the way Israel was going to react to the soldiers kidnapping, he never would have launched the kidnap operation in the first place. This means that however much Nasrallah may be praised in the Arab world for “standing up to Israel,” and no matter how many babies are named Nasrallah or songs are written about him, other Arab states and Iran, may think twice before attacking Israel lest similar devastation happen to them.
Hezbollah suffered other losses as well. Many Hezbollah fighters were killed (the exact number is not known because Hezbollah, unlike Israel, does not release casualty figures) and much of the Hezbollah infrastructure in Southern Beirut was destroyed. Finally, if the admittedly weak Lebanese Army and the international forces to be stationed in Southern Lebanon below the Litani River , as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, are sufficiently aggressive—a very big if—Hezbollah may lose the ability to attack Israel from that region as it has repeatedly done since the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in May 2000. Similarly, in the case of an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, an increasingly likely possibility, Hezbollah may be constrained by the international forces and the Lebanese Army from launching rockets against Israel at Iran’s behest, thus weakening Iran’s deterrent power against Israel.
Israeli Military Mistakes
If Hezbollah can not really be credited with “victory” in the war, neither can Israel, despite Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz’s claim that Israel “won on points”. Indeed, there has been harsh criticism in Israel for the way Olmert, Halutz, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz managed(or mismanaged) the war. While most of Hezbollah’s long range rockets which that had the capability of reaching Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem were quickly destroyed by the Israeli Air Force, the short range missiles that harassed Israeli cities in the north of the country from Kiryat Shemonah to Haifa were not stopped. While it is too early to give a definitive military account of the war–hopefully an Israeli State Commission of Inquiry will soon undertake this task–it appears that five major mistakes were made, which contributed to the failure of Israel to achieve its war aims:
1. A mistaken belief that air power alone would cause Hezbollah to surrender or compel other sectors of the Lebanese population to pressure it to surrender. This misconception may have been influenced by the success of NATO air power in bombing Serbia into submission during the Kosovo war of 1999, and the fact that Halutz was the first Israeli Air Force officer to become Chief of Staff. What was forgotten in this context was that the air attacks in the Kosovo war were backed up by the threat of a massive land invasion, and it appears that was the decisive factor which convinced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to surrender.
2. The delay in mounting a major ground offensive. When it became clear after the first two weeks of the war that air power alone was not getting the job done, Israel should have launched a major ground invasion. This was not done until almost the very end of the war, after the cease-fire agreement had been reached at the United Nations(although not yet agreed to by either Lebanon or Israel) and then in a very sloppy manner.
3. Inadequate intelligence. Israeli land forces were apparently not prepared for the extensive underground bunker system which Hezbollah had constructed in Southern Lebanon, or for the advanced anti-tank weaponry which it possessed, and the Israeli Navy was not prepared for the anti-ship missiles which Hezbollah used against one of its patrol boats.
4. Improper training and supply of the reserve forces. Many of the Israeli reserve troops who were mobilized for the war, had not had sufficient training, as much of their time had been spent in police duties in the West Bank, and, until September 2005, in Gaza. Even worse, and probably a case of criminal negligence, there were troops sent into Lebanon without sufficient flak-jackets and even without food and water.
5. Improper preparations for the Hezbollah’s rocket attacks. Here there were two problems. First, there were an insufficient number of adequately stocked and prepared air raid shelters, especially in Israeli Arab towns. Second, the Israeli Defense Ministry had not put a high priority on developing a system to stop Katusha rockets. Two explanations have been given for this, one budgetary and the other technological. Thus there were claims that other defense systems had greater priority and that such anti-Katusha systems as the “Nautilus” laser weapon defense system proposed by the American firm Northrop-Grumman were still to be proven technologically.
While it can be expected that in the near future these mistakes will be corrected (the anti-Katyusha rocket system may take a bit more time to develop), it is an open question whether the team of Olmert, Peretz and Halutz will be trusted by the Israeli people to implement the needed changes. Not only have all three men dropped precipitously in Israeli opinion polls, there are now major disputes within the ruling Kadima-Labor coalition, and within both Labor and Kadima on the conduct of the war.
The RAISON D’ETRE of Kadima, and the platform on which it ran in the recent Israeli elections, was an additional unilateral withdrawal from the West bank, on the model of the withdrawal from Gaza, and the removal of most of the Jewish settlements there in order to consolidate Israel as a Jewish State. This strategy, which Olmert called “realignment” has been so discredited by the Hezbollah war and the Kassam rockets being fired at Israel from Gaza, that Olmert himself, who foolishly had announced mid-way through the war that the conflict would facilitate realignment, announced its postponement so he could concentrate on reconstruction in Northern Israel. In any case, given the almost six billion dollar cost of the war, including $1.3 billion for damage repair, it is questionable where Olmert would have gotten the money for his realignment policy which was estimated at $11 billion.
In addition, members of Kadima have openly questioned Olmert’s competence in running the war, although he is relatively safe from the criticism of former Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz who bears much of the blame for the lack of intelligence and training of the IDF so evident in the recent war. Within Labor, the criticism of Amir Peretz is considerably sharper. Former IDF generals such as Efraim Sneh and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, never happy with the election of Peretz as Labor Party leader, have openly attacked him for his incompetence in running the war, and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has also been maneuvering to regain party leadership. Howerver, Barak’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon in May 2000 continues to be criticized.
Given their weakened positions within Kadima and Labor, Olmert and Peretz have every reason to keep their coalition together to preclude party leadership votes in case of a new election. Nonetheless, a number of Labor Party members are openly unhappy at the planned budget cuts in social welfare expenditures to pay for the reconstruction in Northern Israel, and this could bring down the coalition. Olmert, of course, has the option of bringing in right-wing parties such as Likud (12 seats) and Yisrael Beiteinu (11) if Labor (19) leaves the coalition. With the realignment plan off the table, there are no ideological barriers for Likud or Yisrael Beiteinu from entering the government. However, whether Likud Leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman wish to associate themselves with the “loser” Ehud Olmert, is an open question although they might wish to play a role in the rebuilding of the IDF for which they would take credit in the next Israeli election. To be continued….