Five lessons can be learned from today’s report on Israel’s war with Lebanon. In the interest of avoiding another conflict, we should take them to heart.
The Israeli Winograd Committee Report on last summer’s Lebanon war was published today, and it presents Israel with something of a Blackadder moment. During the first world war series one of the recruits tells Captain Blackadder he had wanted to see how a war was fought badly, to which the Rowan Atkinson character replies: “Well, you are in the right place then. A war hasn’t been fought this badly since Oluf, king of the Vikings, ordered 1,000 helmets with the horns facing down.”
The 150-page interim report (which rather annoyingly contains no executive summary) describes a litany of mistakes leading up to and during the war, from logistics and planning, to preparedness, strategy and lack of options considered. The report is interim because it ends at day six of the war (in the good old days, they only used to last that long), with the final document, up to and including day 34, due in the summer. There is plenty of blame to go around and it is doled out in generous helpings to virtually every part of Israel’s political and military establishment. Prime minister Olmert’s management of the war is described as a “severe failure” and the media in Israel will discuss little else in the coming days.
Here are five comments that try to look beyond the immediate speculation.
First, the report is mainly about better wars, not fewer wars. Israel’s elected leadership and its military have the duty to protect and defend the Israeli public. The Hezbollah raid across the border that ignited the conflict was an unprovoked act of aggression, but the ongoing political context of unresolved conflict should not be ignored. The vast majority of the public debate in Israel during and since the second Lebanon war has been about the failure to win wars, rather than the failure to avoid war and make peace. There was no committee of inquiry established to investigate the wasted five years since the Arab League launched its peace initiative in 2002 or the wasted year from Abu Mazen’s election to the Palestinian presidency until the Hamas parliamentary election. And there is unlikely to be an investigatory commission into Israel’s failure to respond intelligently to the opportunities presented by the Mecca-Palestinian unity government deal and the prospect it holds out for a comprehensive ceasefire. This is unfortunate. Israel’s military is undoubtedly in need of a spring-cleaning, and it would be a healthy thing if the Israeli public’s confidence in the military would be restored (preferably without the need for another war), but the real collection of cobwebs that needs dusting off is from the file entitled “Israel’s diplomatic strategy”.
Second, there are a few specific findings worth focusing on. The report does point out that Israel’s military preparedness has suffered as a result of its ongoing role in the Palestinian territories: while the country’s military is very practiced in occupation, it is ill-prepared for challenging, mobile warfare. Training schedules, logistical arrangements, reserve exercises and, most of all, the military mindset, have all become intifada-centric. In a book released just days before the committee report two top military correspondents concluded from their exhaustive research that the army’s weak performance was, more than anything else, a consequence of years invested in suppressing the Palestinian intifada. The current generation of officers has military skills honed almost entirely during skirmishes in the territories. One could only hope that, among the myriad lessons Israel will be learning, the most obvious one will not be lost: end the occupation. The report, to its credit (and from what I’ve read so far, it is a serious document), does also question the limited use made of diplomatic and political efforts before and during the war, and the lack of a planned exit strategy.
Third, Olmert is betting on public apathy. The key question gripping Israel today is whether prime minister Olmert can survive the criticism leveled at him by the report, especially as it follows a number of investigations being conducted with regard to his own personal probity and record-low approval ratings. Most of the Israeli media will be conducting a mini-war campaign of their own against Olmert. He was never liked by the media, all policies aside, and is considered difficult and arrogant. The rightwing opposition, led by Benyamin Netanyahu, will try to push for new elections, a move also supported by the leftwing Meretz. Lacking a parliamentary majority, their effort will focus on public pressure – and this is where Olmert can play his trump card: the glorious and unshakable apathy of the Israeli public. There will be a rally in Tel Aviv square this coming Thursday night, which will call on Olmert to resign. The square will be crowded, but it is very unlikely that public momentum will be sustainable after that. In this respect, the Israeli public at least has “equal opportunity apathy”: whether it is a botched war or a botched peace, the people stay at home.
Fourth: if Olmert is finished, what are the political options? The safe money is on Olmert riding this out. Too many in the current Knesset will lose from early elections. If Olmert battles on – and he has already stated that this is his intention – then he might even seek to re-launch his premiership with some bold diplomacy. Within the next month, Olmert is likely to be in a position to appoint a new finance minister and a new defense minister and, with a reshuffled cabinet, new policies may emerge. But if Olmert is a condemned man, then there are three alternative scenarios, in decreasing order of likelihood. The governing Kadima party may come to see its salvation in jettisoning its leader and selecting a new prime minister from within its own ranks. Israel would then have a new prime minister and possibly a new coalition, if some parties bolt and others are added, without going to new elections. The name mentioned most often in this respect is foreign minister Tzipi Livni, but reaching a consensus will not be easy. The next option is for a consensus to emerge around new elections. This will be the call of the opposition’s demonstrations and if Kadima implodes (as it just might), and a new Labour party leader to be elected in a month is feeling bullish, then it will indeed be off to the ballot box. The last option would be for at least a dozen parliamentarians from the combined Kadima-Pensioners faction to break away and defect to the opposition, thereby presenting Netanyahu with a rightwing/religious majority to lead, without new elections. Jolly days ahead.
The fifth and final comment is this: beware an army with wounded pride. This is perhaps the most worrying consequence of last summer’s war and the attendant report published today. There is a clear and frequently articulated sense that Israel’s military standing has been damaged and that only an unequivocal military success can restore both the army’s deterrence value and its wounded pride. Deterrence is not something to be sneezed at. But Israel has not gone from being the neighborhood 800-pound gorilla to its emaciated weakling overnight, and the region is well aware of that. Finding an opportunity for the military to prove itself again would be a very dangerous and self-defeating goal for Israel to adopt. Currently, it is Gaza that lies in the potential firing line, but it could be Lebanon again, or even Syria. The challenge for Israel and the region, but also for the US and the international community will be to avoid turning today’s publication on the last war into a countdown for the next.