On July 16, the Lebanon War's fourth day, Prime Minister Olmert relayed a message to the White House in Washington: Israel needs six to eight weeks in order to pulverize Hizbullah and break it. During that time Israel needs "diplomatic cover" that would thwart international initiatives for a ceasefire. The military attaché at the Washington embassy, Major General Dan Harel, conveyed a similar message to the Pentagon.
Following a discussion with his national security advisors and top defense officials, President Bush provided a positive answer. Israel got the time it asked for; the IDF has a few weeks and even months to get the job done, read the secret message sent to Jerusalem. The Americans only asked that Israel refrain from hitting Lebanese infrastructure targets, in order not to weaken the Siniora government.
The US Administration delivered on its promise. Those who didn't deliver what was expected of them were the Israeli government and the IDF. Figures who are intimately familiar with the realm of strategic relations between Jerusalem and Washington claim that Olmert's initiative, which raised high expectations among Administration officials, led to severe erosion in Israel's status and strategic image in the eyes of its most important ally. As high as the expectation were, so was the disappointment and concentration in Washington. And not only there.
This is only one of the examples of the improvised, zigzag moves adopted by the political leadership in Israel during the second Lebanon War. After all, four days before the assured message was relayed to Washington, on the day of the abduction on the Lebanon border, the government decided to launch a limited aerial assault that would only last 72-96 hours. How did the leadership decide, within four days, to move from a limited operation to fighting that is supposed to last between six to eight weeks?
It turns out that the success of the aerial assault got to their head. The Air Force destroyed within two days most of the medium and long range Fajar and Zelzal rockets, and the army chief let the politicians understand that if only he got a few more weeks for an aerial assault, he could achieve the other vague objectives that were set. This materialized despite the fact that the head of the IDF intelligence research branch warned that the aerial assault would not bring about the release of the abducted IDF soldiers and would not paralyze Hizbullah.
Writing was on the wall
On the very same day that the message was sent to Washington, eight Israel Railway employees were killed in Haifa after being hit by a Syrian rocket. Dozens of Katyusha rockets landed in northern communities. The writing was on the wall of the destructed homes. Yet the prime minister, defense minister, and other cabinet ministers did not ask the chief of staff tough questions. They did not ask him what would happen if the aerial assault won't bring about the desired results and the home front will continue to be hit.
The Winograd Commission, which in recent days questioned the prime minister, likely asked among other things the following question: What assessments and data was the decision to extend the aerial campaign based on, without exercising caution or examining alternative plans in case something went wrong? Olmert and Peretz already knew at that time, after talking to senior officers and former army chiefs, that the IDF had a long time ago reached the conclusion that only a wide-scale ground assault involving three divisions can paralyze the short-range rocket attacks. The operational plan was ready and the troops exercised it before. All that was needed was to call up reserve forces and prepare the forces, a process that could have been done in a week to 10 days.
Yet they did not demand that the army chief adopt steps that will enable the army to execute the plan in case his aerial conception failed. They also did not relay the required instructions for preparing the home front in order to minimize the risk of casualties among northern residents.
The Winograd Commission will have to find out to what extent were decisions taken by the political leadership in that critical stage affected by gut-feeling and euphoria, and to what extent they were based on sober assessments and in-depth analysis that takes into account all possible implications.
Vague answer to Peres' question
The decision on extending the fighting and approaching Washington to request a diplomatic umbrella on the fourth day of combat is only one of the decision-making junctions where the political leadership displayed rashness. It was preceded by the initial decision on the limited aerial operation, which was taken without the prime minister and defense minister fully clarifying with the chief of staff what his plan was for continuing the fighting and how he intended to take care of the short range rockets. Minister Shimon Peres asked, in that same meeting, what is supposed to happen next, but he received a vague answer.
Ministers, officers, and senior security officials who already testified before the Commission outlined the amateurish, zigzagging decision-making pattern: The military leadership time and again presented the cabinet with alternatives, without the army chief engaging in an orderly, in-depth process of examining the implications of each alternative and without planning several steps ahead; Olmert and Peretz chose the alternative they liked each time, without bothering to fully realize the implications of their decisions and what they were to achieve; the war escalated from one improvisation to the next, from the decision on a limited aerial campaign to the decision on an ongoing aerial assault, and from there, to sporadic ground raids without a master plan and while sustaining Katyusha hits, all the way to a sort-of-operation lacking clear military objectives that would bring the IDF close to the Litani river, in order to improve the clauses of the Security Council resolution on ending the fighting.
Israel's political and military leadership managed the war without understanding, almost all the way to the ceasefire, that we're in a war. A war whose implications on our strategic and security situation are far reaching and therefore require orderly and large-scale moves that would enable us to achieve a clear victory. At the very least – a considerable reduction in the firing of Katyusha rockets. The political and military leadership's vague thinking trickled down and led to commanders and soldiers in the field receiving contradictory orders and failing to understand at most times the missions they were asked to carry out. As a result, the war ended without a clear military result.
The Winograd Commission's mission is not only to find out which politicians and military leaders are responsible for the war's failures; the job will not be complete without a clear statement regarding the manner in which decisions must be taken during a time of crisis in the military-political intersection, and where the line separating the military leadership's areas of responsibility from those of the political leadership's passes exactly.