As Ehud Barak takes over as minister of defense, and another intervention in Gaza appears looming on the horizon, discussions of the failures of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continue almost unabated.
Whether it is the Second Lebanon War or the firing of Qassam rockets into Israeli cities, negative opinion towards the embattled prime minister seems to near no end. Indeed, Israeli society’s collective memory seems quite short-sighted. While there is no doubt that Olmert has made many mistakes during his time in office, one should not forget that his policies are due in large part to the failed strategies of previous Israeli leaders.
Blaming Olmert for all that is wrong in Israeli society today would be like blaming Lyndon Johnson for all the failures of the Vietnam War. Just as history has shown that John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon share some of the responsibility for America’s actions in Vietnam, so too must we recall the failures of former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak in securing the Jewish State.
The initial findings of the Winograd Commission only superficially broached the subject of the troubled policies of Barak and Sharon vis-à-vis the buildup of Hizballah on the northern border. Lest we forget, it was Ehud Barak, not Ehud Olmert, who allowed Hizbullah to amass its Iranian-supplied rockets, missiles and fighters on the Israeli border. After the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Barak stated, “From now on, the government of Lebanon is accountable for what takes place within its territory, and the Lebanese and Syrian governments are responsible for preventing acts of terror or aggression against Israel.” Yet he never held any of those parties accountable.
And while the UN painstakingly certified that Israel had withdrawn from every inch of Lebanese territory, its UNIFIL forces did nothing more than watch and videotape Hizballah launch cross-border raids.
Barak's campaign promise
Three main reasons account for the inaction on the part of the Israeli government. The first reason was that the nation was simply not willing to go back into Lebanon to prevent a Hizbullah buildup – the withdrawal was wildly popular, and once the decision to depart was made, only a major escalation would have forced the IDF back into Lebanon. It is for that reason that Israel’s response to the kidnapping of three of its soldiers in October of 2000 – only months after the initial May withdrawal – could be described as negligible at best. The bodies of the soldiers were only retrieved after a grossly disproportional exchange of forces years later.
The second reason for Israel’s inaction was that the Lebanese withdrawal was the fulfillment of a Barak campaign promise, and thus the ordering of forces back into Lebanon shortly after the withdrawal had taken place would have shown Barak as having made a mistake – not something a politician is easily ready to accept.
Finally, there is the realization that the international community simply would not have tolerated Israel reengaging in a full-scale assault into Lebanon or Syria because of their failure to weigh in on Hizbullah.
Sharon's lackluster response
These same reasons help explain Ariel Sharon’s out-of-character lackluster response to the almost immediate shelling of Israeli territory following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The calculation by the Israeli and international leadership at the time was that the occasional assaults by Hizbullah and firing of crude homemade Qassam rockets by Hamas were not serious enough offenses to warrant severe Israeli reprisals. And thus Hamas and Hizballuh’s capabilities, instead of being degraded, were allowed to develop.
As we fast forward a few years to the summer of 2006, we found these were the predicaments that the militarily inexperienced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert found himself facing when he began his term in office. Only this time around the Israeli public was tired of sitting still and itching to defend itself. And thus Olmert, along with his even less experienced then-minister of defense, were left to deal on multiple fronts with what his predecessors – two highly decorated and skilled soldiers – failed to mollify. And thus we find ourselves in the situation we are in today.
Withdrawing from insurgencies is never easy, but making the decision to reengage in an insurgency is even more difficult. While Olmert made many mistakes thus far in his term in office, his inability to quell violence that should have been addressed by previous administrations long ago needs to be understood in the proper context.
Joshua L Gleis is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University and a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His research explores how to more effectively withdraw from insurgencies.