They are only armchair generals now, but the sharpest critics of Israel’s performance in the recent war against Hezbollah were once active-duty generals, and they’re fighting mad.
The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, met twice with a forum of about 100 retired Israeli generals — at their request, in the past two weeks — to hear their critique of the war.
For Gen. Halutz, a former fighter pilot who shot down five enemy planes in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, readiness to face his angry peers may have been the bravest act of his career.
As the first airman ever appointed head of the IDF, he was the principal target of the armor and infantry veterans at the meetings — some recently retired, some in their 80s who led the IDF to victory in past wars — who believe that Israel, for the first time in its history, came out on the short end in this summer’s confrontation.
“An air force man cannot command the army, certainly not oversee the operation of the ground forces,” said reserves Gen. Avigdor Ben-Gal, who commanded a tank brigade that held out for four days against two Syrian divisions on the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War.
Gen. Ben-Gal told Gen. Halutz that he had been arrogant in responding previously to claims that an airman cannot command ground forces. Gen. Halutz had said: “You don’t have to be a sheep first to shepherd the herd.”
Said Gen. Ben-Gal: “As someone who was a sheep, I say to you: To command people, you first have to crawl with them through thorns.”
Gen. Halutz, who commanded the air force for four years, was chosen as IDF chief of staff by Ariel Sharon when he was prime minister, presumably for his analytical abilities and because of the likelihood that Israel’s next confrontation would be with Iran, a conflict in which the air force would carry the principal burden.
No ground war appeared to be in the offing, so Gen. Halutz’s inexperience in that sphere did not seem of great importance. In any case, he would be surrounded by ground-war generals.
After the Hezbollah cross-border raid of July 12, in which several soldiers were killed and two taken prisoner, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to retaliate strongly. In the following days, Israeli warplanes leveled a Hezbollah neighborhood in south Beirut, pounded Hezbollah-controlled villages in south Lebanon and caused extensive damage to bridges and other infrastructure.
While the air attack was devastating, Israelis began to wonder after a few days why ground forces were not going in to suppress the missiles that Hezbollah had begun to fire. The army appeared to dawdle in anticipation that the war could be won from the air, sparing the casualties a ground attack would entail.
When at last ground forces were sent in it, confusion reigned. Orders were constantly being changed, units were sent in, then immediately pulled out, as if different elements in the government and in the army command were pulling in different directions.
A former paratroop commander in the reserves, Gen. Yoram Yair, said that in Lebanon, the IDF had abandoned the principles it followed so effectively in the past, including clearly defined missions and the use of stratagems.
The retired generals were critical of brigade commanders who, instead of leading their troops in the field, used new technologies enabling them to operate from rear control centers where they could monitor the battlefield on screens showing pictures sent back by drones.
“The IDF needs leaders, not managers,” said one forum participant.
Gen. Halutz’s predecessor as chief of staff, retired Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, did not participate in the forums, but in an interview with the daily newspaper Ha’aretz he leveled scathing criticism at Gen. Halutz and Mr. Olmert. The air offensive, he said, had been highly effective but activation of the ground forces had been a “catastrophe.”
Previous plan ignored
For reasons unknown, said Gen. Ya’alon, the IDF failed to implement an operational plan drawn up in his time, which called for a speedy move by ground forces to the Litani River, nearly 20 miles north of Israel’s border, if the initial air attack and the mobilization of reserves did not bring Hezbollah to heel.
Most Israeli casualties were suffered from sophisticated anti-tank missiles that penetrated heavy tank armor and brought houses down on soldiers sheltering inside. Gen. Ya’alon said his plan called for entering Lebanon without tanks and avoiding houses or built-up areas.
“Because of our awareness of the missile problem and of the bunkers, and that the roads were mined, the intention was to activate the IDF in guerrilla modalities. That is how the forces were trained.
“Instead of sticking to the IDF’s operational plan, they started to improvise, and then improvised again. Instead of grabbing political achievements at the right moment [by setting in motion a political process with American assistance leading to the disarmament of Hezbollah], they went on with the use of force. They overused force.”
While it is still not clear whether the lack of decisiveness stemmed mainly from the political level or the army command, Gen. Ya’alon contended that much fault clearly lay with Gen. Halutz who, he said, managed the campaign “arrogantly and shallowly.”
‘Lack of clarity’
“He entered the war without defining it as a war, and maybe without understanding that it was a war. He did not understand the implications of the measures he himself adopted. He did not mobilize the reserves in time. He created lack of clarity that rattled the forces in the field, causing a loss of trust and generating chaos.”
Gen. Ya’alon himself is blamed by some for not having prepared the army properly, and because some tank personnel sent into battle had not been in a tank for years. Reservist training had been seriously cut back while the conscript soldiers of the standing army have spent most of their time in recent years dealing with the Palestinian uprising instead of training for conventional war.
Despite the breast-beating going on in Israel and the claims of victory by Hezbollah, the jury is still out on who won the war. About 120 Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, but Israel says it has the names — presumably from identity cards — of 532 Hezbollah fighters killed, and it estimates that perhaps 200 more were slain. These are serious numbers for a guerrilla force numbering only a few thousand.
In addition, the fighting was on Hezbollah’s turf, a battlefield prepared by the guerrilla force for more than six years with bunkers, mines and camouflaged fighting positions.
‘A wake-up call’
Israel lost its deterrent edge by failing to prevent Hezbollah from firing 4,000 rockets into Israel during the monthlong war and by failing to seize all of south Lebanon up to the Litani River before the cease-fire. But it achieved far-reaching changes: the removal of Hezbollah fighters from the border; their replacement by the Lebanese army, which is answerable not to Tehran, but to a government in Beirut that wants stability; the beefing up of U.N. forces in south Lebanon; and Hezbollah’s agreement to keep its weapons out of sight instead of flaunting them, as in the past.
In the longer run, it remains to be seen whether the deterrence Israel lost to Hezbollah rockets will lead to a more meaningful Israeli deterrence, stemming from the memory of the destruction wrought by the Israeli air force in Beirut and elsewhere.
Perhaps the greatest advantage Israel derived from the war is an awareness of the IDF’s shortcomings, which may be a timely wake-up call.