This week 15 years ago, the IDF pulled out of Lebanon unilaterally. The decision was a correct and brave move by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But the policy adopted after the pullout was wrong, and its ramifications in the future are dangerous.
The decision to withdraw was right because there was no reason to stay there at a cost of some 25 dead soldiers a year. Many mistakes were made during the pullout, but they don’t change the fact that, strategically, it was the right move.
Barak's perception was based on receiving international legitimacy, which was indeed received when the IDF withdrew to the line dictated by the United Nations. This is also the point in which the missed opportunity began.
Even before the pullout, the IDF had the legitimacy to fight Hezbollah, a terror organization supported by Syria and Iran. It didn't have to leave Lebanon in order to gain the legitimacy to continue fighting Hezbollah, if the organization continued to target us. The legitimacy gained after we pulled out of Lebanese soil to the very last centimeter was to act against the Lebanese state, if any terror were to be launched against us from within that country. We were wrong not to make that perfectly clear in advance, and were very wrong in the way we managed the Second Lebanon War. We tried to defeat Hezbollah, and we let the Lebanese state, which fully protects Hezbollah, evade any responsibility.
What if the "Third Lebanon War" breaks out tomorrow? If we manage the war the way we managed to previous one, we will bring about a huge disaster. The IDF has allegedly improved since the Second Lebanon War, but on a tactical balance Hezbollah has improved even more. The result of such a war, which may go on for 33 or 50 days, will be much more difficult than the Second Lebanon War. We should acknowledge the fact that the IDF is incapable of beating Hezbollah unless the Israeli home front is willing to pay an intolerable price.
The conclusion is clear. If we are fired on from Lebanese territory, and Israel decides to wage a battle, it must declare war on Lebanon and focus its efforts also against Hezbollah but mainly against the Lebanese army, the Lebanese infrastructures and the Lebanese state institutions.
As there is no player in the arena – neither Syria and Iran on the one hand, nor Saudi Arabia and the Western countries on the other hand, nor Hezbollah itself – which is willing to deal with the destruction of the Lebanese state – the result of an Israeli attack on Lebanon will likely be an urgent call by everyone for a ceasefire. A ceasefire after three days rather than after 33 days is both the way to win the next war and to recreate effective deterrence.
Some say that "the world won't let us do it." That's an incorrect statement. The international community won't tell us to stop firing on the one hand, and tell Hezbollah that it may continue on the other hand. The international community will call on all sides to hold fire at the same time, and the sooner it happens, the more the balance will be in favor of Israel.
Moreover, the most efficient way to postpone the third Lebanon war is to state in advance how and against who it will be waged. The moment fire is opened, it is no longer possible to start explaining the new policy. That's the main lesson from the past 15 years. Israel should always favor war (or an agreement) with a state player rather than with a terror organization. This statement applies to Lebanon, and it applies just as much to Gaza.
Major-General (res.) Giora Eiland is a former head of Israel's National Security Council.