In 2010 we are marking 40 years to the end of the War of Attrition and ceasefire deal signed in 1970, the 10th anniversary of the Lebanon withdrawal and outbreak of the terror offensive from Judea and Samaria in 2000, and five years to the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
The experience accumulated from these withdrawals does not show that they were a mistake in and of themselves, but rather, that public mood and pre-election propaganda create an impenetrable physiological obstacle among governments when they need to address different realities than those promised to voters.
The enemies of Israel learned a while ago that when the results of an expected withdrawal are presented in a positive light to Israeli voters, the easier it is for our rivals to act against the withdrawal without being met with a proper response.
The lesson to decision-makers is not to avoid further withdrawals, but rather, to greatly minimize the promises of peace and security to follow. Hence, even though in Israel the pledge of withdrawal is essential in order to get some voters’ support, expectations should be greatly minimized. This will make it easier for the government to change its worldview if and when the enemy fails to act in the manner promised to the voters.
The night the ceasefire went into effect in the Suez Canal, in August 1970, the Egyptians blatantly violated the agreement with Israel by moving their anti-aircraft batteries closer to the Canal. The Israeli government knew that our Air Force had no response for the advanced Egyptian missiles and that moving them to the Canal would prevent the Air Force from assisting IDF ground forces should a war break out again.
However, the government – which was also exhausted by the attrition campaign – viewed the agreement as too important to be terminated upon its birth. Hence, the missile batteries were allowed to stay and cover the aerial space above and east of the Canal.
Three years later, the Egyptians crossed the Canal under cover of the missile umbrella. Before the war broke out, in October 1973, the Knesset elections were scheduled to take place. One of the main reasons that prevented the defense minister from calling up reserve forces ahead of the war were declarations made by his party during the elections campaign, in respect to our borders “never being quieter.”
In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak pledged to remove the IDF from the Lebanon security zone should he be elected, so that our presence there will no longer be a reason for Hezbollah activity and peace shall prevail. Barak added that should Hezbollah choose to act nonetheless, it will be met with decisive IDF action.
In October 2000, five months after the IDF left Lebanon, we faced the test when three Engineering corps soldiers were abducted in the Mount Dov area. Barak failed to break the pattern of promises to his voters, which prevented him from shifting to the belligerent modus operandi he himself promised.
It was the Olmert government that changed the rules of the game in Lebanon in 2006 when it surprised Hezbollah by bombing the heart of Beirut in response to another abduction of soldiers.
In September 2000, Arafat’s terror offensive known as the al-Aqsa Intifada broke out. Just like in Lebanon, here too the promises to voters regarding the expected quiet in the wake of deals with the PLO prevented the Barak government from operating immediately against the suicide terror by reoccupying these areas.
Just like in the Lebanon theater, here too it was the Sharon government that led the change in perception with the 2002 Defensive Shield operation and brought about an end to terror through repeated IDF assaults across Judea and Samaria.
However, the rule pertaining to a government’s inability to overcome its own declarations regarding a withdrawal it initiated also applied to the Sharon cabinet. This government was paralyzed vis-à-vis Hamas’ terror from Gaza following the withdrawal from the Strip in the summer of 2005. Here too, the reason for this was the promises of quiet to prevail in the wake of the pullout.
It took four more years of suffering until another government, which was not trapped by its own declarations, embarked on Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and brought about positive results.
The chronic failure in properly responding to more intense fighting in the wake of the limited withdrawals undertaken so far must serve as a warning sign to anyone initiating a broad withdrawal from theaters such as Judea and Samaria or the Golan Heights.
There is no justification for the ongoing impotence displayed by governments after the withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon, yet the State of Israel is strong enough to overcome such failures. The combination of a smaller Israel as result of strategic pullout along with an unequivocal warning of an expected attack by a regular army will require a decision about a pre-emptive strike in the areas Israel will be withdrawing from.
Any democratic government in the world has great difficulty in initiating war, and the lessons drawn from the conduct of Israeli governments thus far show that there is no chance of seeing such decisions being taken by the very same people convinced of the benefits inherent in withdrawals. The existential threat that may emerge in situations where the right decisions will not be taken in the face of negative consequences of what is known around here as “painful concessions for peace” is clear.
Colonel (res.) Yehuda Wegman is an instructor specializing in military doctrine and IDF history