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Photo: Avihu Shapira
IDF soldier in Lebanon (Illustration)
Photo: Avihu Shapira
Israel’s fateful withdrawal
Lebanon exit marked zenith of Israel’s shift from offensive to defensive posture

The withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 constitutes a significant and special event; an attempt to shape our security reality in the north unilaterally, while aiming to elicit broad international recognition.

 

The withdrawal marked the zenith of a significant change in the characteristics of Israel’s security doctrine. It appears that we still cannot formulate a clear answer to the question of whether it was a planned move that stemmed from strategic-political thinking, or whether it stemmed from the “peer pressure” that dominated the public discourse in previous years.

 

It is possible that the withdrawal’s execution in practice, with all parties being surprised by the timing (including the IDF, South Lebanon Army, and Hezbollah) had some weight in respect to entrenching the attitude to the pullout both within the Israeli public and among Hezbollah members. Yet more than anything else, the withdrawal indicted a doctrinal change whereby Israel shifted from an offensive to a defensive approach.

 

Israel’s security strategy was set by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and premised on a defense strategy that allows for offense as a systematic-tactical component; hence, Israel developed offensive perception vis-à-vis terror organizations. Over the years, the IDF continuously implemented an offensive military policy that did not allow the terror threat to develop. This offensive approach maintained a low-level threat.

 

The years of our war on terror are replete with examples of offensive operations against terror groups in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. These operations assisted Israel in suppressing and maintaining terror groups’ capabilities at a low and relatively stable level, while creating a complex security reality that was limited to borderline communities.

 

Yet the longer the IDF stayed in Lebanon, the more we saw a gradual process of abandoning the offensive approach and adopting a clear defensive posture. The number of offensive operations declined, the operational freedom of commanders on the ground was considerably limited, and every operation produced limitations for future operations. As a result of this, we saw the emergence of an operational reality that made it difficult to continue adopting the offensive approach. All this was happening against the backdrop of a society that focused its discourse on our casualties in Lebanon.

 

Narrow defensive approach

As noted, the withdrawal from Lebanon marked the zenith of this process. Israel withdraw to a defensive line, completely ended its offensive activity, and shifted to a policy of “containment” that sought to limit any event to the local level, without attempting to target the broader circles of the threat, and without aiming to affect its development in the mid and long term.

 

This was a narrow defensive approach, which completely contradicted the IDF’s fundamental doctrine adopted since the state’s establishment. About six months after the withdrawal, Israel was given the opportunity to produce a deterring offensive equation in the face of the Mount Dov abduction. However, this opportunity was missed when with the exception of some impassioned words and plenty of assessments nothing happened. The result was that Israel and the IDF continued to deepen the “containment” policy.”

 

Many reasons were given for this: For example, the battle against the Palestinians, and the desire to refrain from expanding the scope of confrontation. However, this policy allowed terror groups to develop uncontrollably over time. Hezbollah, for example, acquired numerous rockets and missiles.

 

The containment policy drew to an end in the Second Lebanon War, when the Israeli government realized that it was no longer possible to maintain this policy, and that its price is greater than its benefit. The same was true for Operation Cast Lead, after the Israeli government decided to embark on an assault following years of rocket attacks.

 

It is incumbent upon us at this time to clarify to what extent we see a fundamental change in perception, rather than a limited repair job. I am hopeful that we shall go back to a more offensive policy in safeguarding the State of Israel’s security interests.

 

Dr. Gabriel Siboni heads the Military and Strategy research program at the Institute for National Security Studies. Last week, it held a convention titled “The Withdrawal from Lebanon: 10 years later,” attended by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former military leaders, and senior researchers.

 

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