By Amotz Asa-El
It was a fitting finale to a war most Israelis would rather forget.
As thousands followed the coffins of IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose bodies arrived in Israel two years after the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, a sense of sobriety, introspection and catharsis descended on the Jewish state. The fallen, one of whom was a newly graduated law student and the other a newly married environmental engineer, were abducted and killed by Hezbollah guerrillas in July 2006 in an incident that mushroomed into six weeks of mutual bombings and sporadic ground battles. One hundred and sixty-three Israelis and an estimated 900 Lebanese were left dead, while entire areas between Beirut and Haifa were left scarred.
The deal, whereby Israel released a notorious Lebanese terrorist (plus four others) in return for bodies has left Israelis wondering not only about the wisdom of the deal, but about that entire war’s strategic costs and benefits.
The pessimists say the terrorist-for-bodies deal symbolised Hezbollah’s real victory, which is military and political. Militarily, the Shi’ite Lebanese organisation has restored, multiplied and improved its missile arsenal. It now includes 40,000 rockets that can cover most of Israel, and politically, it has consolidated its position as Lebanon’s best-organised and most assertive minority.
Meanwhile, continue the pessimists, Israel’s failure in summer 2006 to subdue Hezbollah inspired Hamas’ postwar overthrow of President Mahmoud Abbas’ security forces in Gaza (after the Islamist party’s prewar victory in parliamentary elections) and Iran, which has been further emboldened in its nuclear ambitions and jihadist rhetoric.
The Israeli government of course rejects this analysis. In its view, the deployment of a sizable UN force as well as Lebanese troops along Israel’s northern border as a result of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 is a major strategic improvement, with Hezbollah no longer manning the border. Similarly, Israel’s strong response to the provocation it faced in July 2006 made it plain that the Jewish state is prepared to respond to such situations even at the risk of war, thus improving Israel’s deterrence.
As for the broader region, the optimists add that Israel’s aerial attack in September 2007 on a reported nuclear installation in northeastern Syria has demonstrated both its willingness and ability to strike far from home when the need arises.
Lastly, this school contends that the ongoing talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are valuable as they are laying the foundations for a future permanent settlement.
In fact, Israel’s position in its region remains unclear so long as the future of the Iranian axis remains unclear.
For most Israelis, the most disappointing protagonist in the summer of 2006, more than the politicians, was the IDF.
The army’s failure to act swiftly in order to deal Hezbollah a blow that would be seen internationally as a clear defeat came as a shock, particularly to the thousands of Israelis who had participated in Israel’s more successful, previous wars.
One factor that most analysts agree had a negative impact was the IDF’s unprecedented leadership at the time by a pilot. Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, who has since resigned, had been installed by Ariel Sharon, who evidently planned to compensate for the former air force commander’s lack of experience in ground warfare with Sharon’s own experience as a general. But by the time the war broke out Sharon had left the scene, and the charismatic and over-confident Halutz’s grip on the military was unchallenged. The result was a fateful over-reliance on aerial and artillery attacks which, as predicted by military theories that go back to the 1950s, failed to defeat the enemy on the ground.
Moreover, when finally ordered to launch a ground attack, the IDF struck many as ill-trained and cumbersome.
The good news for Israel in all this is that the first to take the war’s failings to heart has been the IDF itself.
Beyond the replacements of Halutz, his deputy and the commanders of the Northern Command and the Lebanese border, the IDF has embarked on elaborate practice ground manoeuvres in an effort to brace for the kind of ground warfare that some had prematurely assumed obsolete. Even before this decade’s terror challenges, some experts had contended that the Iran-Iraq War that ended in 1988 was the last fully conventional war. Moreover, the IDF’s empirical experience this decade, where it was compelled to confront a massive terror offensive on the home front which made it gradually focus its thoughts and resources on what came to be termed as low-intensity warfare, also had an effect.
On this front, the IDF had actually earned universal admiration, developing tactics and arms geared specifically to target, for instance, suicide bombers as well as the labs, vehicles, workshops and operators behind them. The more the army developed the specialised pilots, marksmen and commandos that all this required, and the more it was preoccupied with confronting terror cells in the thick of urban areas, the more it neglected the classic battlefield. In summer 2006, that neglect exacted its price, both mentally and logistically.
Then again, the challenge of 2006, though closer in character to the older wars than to the new, low-intensity war, was nonetheless unique even as such. Hezbollah did not deploy mass units, let alone mechanised ones, only an agile artillery of sorts and fortifications manned by small infantry units. The artillery even included operators skipping between positions on motorcycles. In other words, the IDF’s apparent suspicion that the battle tank is on its way to the war museum may yet prove valid, but this does not preclude the fact that in the future, as in the past, wars will still require ground-based manoeuvring of well trained and highly motivated troops led by skilled and daring commanders.
This conceptual misdirection is what went wrong from an Israeli viewpoint on the battlefield in summer 2006. The rest, most notably the air force’s performance and the foot soldiers’ enlistment, motivation, and delivery were actually encouraging. After all, the IDF killed many more Hezbollah soldiers than it lost, and in every local clash between the two armies’ troops the IDF prevailed. Israeli soldiers’ reports, that when cornered Hezbollah soldiers took out pistols and shot themselves in the head, mean that they were given orders to avoid captivity or any other appearance of defeat. But defeated they were, when it came to meeting IDF units eyeball to eyeball.
Beyond the battlefield, Israel suffered a setback in that Hezbollah managed to harass its population for six weeks, and survive. A future clash, it is therefore assumed in Israel, will have to target Hezbollah’s chain of command and troops, so that the estimated 70% of Lebanon who are not Shi’ites can be emboldened to confront them.
As for Iran and Hamas, while there is no denying their emergence from the war with even greater self-confidence, there has also been a downside from their viewpoint. Until summer 2006, Iran’s sway beyond its borders seemed mainly moral and occasionally logistical, but it never added up to a serious effort to establish regional hegemony. Now diplomats suspect that Iran’s intention is to dominate Beirut, the Arab world’s culturally western-most outpost, and through it, along with the Gaza outpost manned by Hamas, extend its influence and power along the Mediterranean coast.
Such a design is a nightmare not only to Israel but also to Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Christian world. In this regard, Israel actually emerged with a little-discussed advantage from the war, as its diplomats now find it easier to present Iran and its allies as the region’s number one destabilisers.
This is also why Damascus is cautiously reconsidering its foreign policy.
Though an ally of the Iranian regime, partly due to the ruling Alawite minority’s historic links to Shi’ism, Syria appears to be exploring whether it is time to change horses, the way Egypts’s Anwar Sadat did when he switched his allegiance from Moscow to Washington.
From Israel’s viewpoint, it would have been nicer to meet Syrian negotiators who do not live under the delusion that a proxy of theirs had just dealt Israel a knockout, but the vulnerability the Syrians reportedly displayed in fall 2007 is arguably much more meaningful, as their air defences proved useless.
In sum, the Second Lebanon War has left the Middle East even more unnerved, vigilant and diplomatically perplexed than it ordinarily is. And nowhere is this confusion of hope and despair more evident than in the Palestinian arena. The schizophrenic situation whereby the elected Palestinian president is negotiating peace with the same Jewish state that the elected Hamas government vows to destroy is but a symptom of a region torn between conflicting vectors.
In fact, seen this way it is very possible that the Second Lebanon War was not the cause, but the result of a war already being waged long before 2006, and whose focus is not the Arab-Israeli conflict but the post-Cold War Middle East. That war pits a pro-Western Sunni Arab elite against an anti-Western Iran that is nurturing an axis that, if it’s up to the mullahs, would proceed from Teheran through Basra, Damascus and Beirut to Gaza.
Some Western diplomats hope that the Iranians will be disarmed through negotiations that will sever crucial links from their axis, such as the Palestinians and the Syrians. Others hope that Teheran will retreat from the brink in return for diplomatic, economic and political carrots. However, if neither of these occur, only a military setback would likely be effective in dealing Teheran’s regional stock the blow it never received in the wake of the Second Lebanon War.