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Justifiable but late
Decision to launch ground operation was right; timing was terribly wrong

“The United States has gone far out on a limb to allow Israel to win and ... It has counted on Israel's ability to do the job. It has been disappointed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has provided unsteady and uncertain leadership. Foolishly relying on air power alone, he

denied his generals the ground offensive they wanted, only to reverse himself later….His search for victory on the cheap has jeopardized not just the Lebanon operation but America's confidence in Israel as well. That confidence -- and the relationship it reinforces -- is as important to Israel's survival as its own army. The tremulous Olmert seems not to have a clue.”

Charles Krauthammer Israel's Lost Moment, the Washington Post, August 4, 2006

 

This scathing condemnation by one of Israel's staunchest supporters underlines two undeniable truths: The Winograd Commission was undoubtedly right in deeming the decision to launch a large-scale ground operation in final stages of the Second Lebanon War as "inevitable". However, Winograd was unquestionably wrong in deeming the decision as reasonable or justifiable! Moreover, the claim that partisan political considerations determined the decision to use military force is probably mistaken. However, the claim that partisan political considerations determined the decision not to use military force is absolutely correct.

 

There is no logical contradiction in these apparently antithetical statements. Indeed, in combination, they provide a comprehensive explanation for the tragic fiasco that took place in the summer of 2006.

 

After all, the inevitable necessity for a large-scale ground operation should have been obvious to anyone with the mere ability to count – even without being particularly well-versed in military affairs. It was common knowledge that Hizbullah had amassed about 14,000 rockets and missiles. Assuming the Israeli government was not mindless enough to believe that such formidable arsenal had been accumulated merely for ceremonial purposes, the question then arises as to how it prepared to contend with this clearly discernable threat.

 

The scale of danger posed by the Hizbullah weaponry was readily assessable. Indeed, even if the working assumption was that at least 95% of ordnance would be ineffective – because of inaccurate launches, dud inventory, destruction of stockpiles and/or launchers by the IDF – this still could mean several hundreds, possibly up to a thousand, casualties, enormous physical devastation and colossal economic cost - which no responsible government could accept.

 

One hardly requires the military acumen of Clausewitz to realize that massive deployment of ground forces would be necessary to neutralize Hizbullah's ability to bombard Israeli civilians – particularly given the time constraints Israel has in the use of its military prowess. Accordingly the Winograd Commission was right in stipulating that the decision to launch a large-scale land operation was unavoidable. But while it is possible to agree with the assessment that what was decided was justifiable, this is certainly not case with regard to when it was decided – or rather not decided.

 

Even if the inexperience of then-incumbent political leadership could be considered a mitigating factor in the initial days of combat, it soon became clear - as Hizbullah firepower continued unabated - that the exclusive reliance on airpower was ineffectual. The hesitant use of limited ground forces, which was reluctantly introduced, predictably did little or nothing to bring about a perceptible change in the volume of the daily barrages raining down on exposed Israeli towns and villages. Yet, in spite of an unprecedentedly benign international environment, the Israeli government obstinately refused to recognize the military imperatives of the situation - and the long term strategic costs such refusal was incurring.

 

Hesitancy takes heavy toll

One cannot therefore avoid the conclusion that while substantively pertinent considerations may indeed have determined the decision to use military force, partisan political considerations played a major role in determining the scale and timing of that use. In this regard, one would do well to recall that principal reason that brought the head of Kadima to head the Israeli government was the alluring promise of unilateral withdrawal, the seductive slogan that "we (Israel) will determine our future on our own."

 

Thus emerged a political imperative to preserve the validity of this approach and to strictly eschew any steps that might undermine it. Indeed, who can forget that even in the midst of the fiercest fighting, Olmert declared – with an astounding lack of sensitivity - that not only was his plan for unilateral "convergence" still at the top of his government's agenda, but that the war would in fact accelerate its implementation?

 

It is thus eminently plausible to assume that if the government's entire political doctrine was founded on the idea of unilateral withdrawal, the continued validity of that doctrine - the raison d'etre for the government's incumbency - required demonstrating one of two things (a) proof that if one withdraws unilaterally from territory, that territory does not become a platform from which to attack Israel; or (b) if it does become such a platform, proof that such attacks can be overcome with relative ease, involving little economic cost and low casualties.

 

Since Israel was indeed attacked from territory that was evacuated unilaterally, it became imperative to avoid undertaking actions that might entail a tangible danger of sustaining heavy casualties. Thus the great aversion to a large-scale ground operation - and its repeated and disastrous deferral - was rooted not in substantive military considerations, but rather, in utilitarian political survival instincts.

 

Shackled, emotionally and mentally, to the notion of unilateral withdrawal which brought him to power, Olmert found himself imprisoned within the confines of a distorted intellectual architecture that precluded any possibility of effective policy responses to a reality that was likely to make his election platform look absurd.

 

 

As the government dithered, unable to silence or diminish Hizbullah's firepower, its weakness and hesitancy began to take heavy toll on a range of vital national interests – degrading Israel's deterrent posture in the Arab world and eroding the Arab fear of the consequences of attack on Israel's civilian population centers and infrastructure; accumulating diplomatic damage via continual bombing of Lebanon, doing little to quell the deluge of rockets on Israeli civilians, but much to stir up international condemnation; fomenting growing anger across the Muslim world, disillusioning and unnerving Arab regimes that tacitly endorsed a swift crushing of Hizbullah; and perhaps most disturbingly, undermining the US perception of Israel's military prowess and hence of its value as an ally – as reflected by the citation at the start of this essay.

 

It was only when the political damage his military inaction was causing began to outweigh the fear of the political damage military action might cause that Olmert was compelled to acknowledge the inevitable need for a large-scale ground operation. Thus while the Winograd Commission's diagnosis of the inevitability of the decision to launch a major ground offensive was fundamentally correct, its designation of the manner in which decision was made as justifiable is manifestly unjustified … and unjustifiable. 

 


פרסום ראשון: 02.04.08, 00:18
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