- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

JERUSALEM

With the outbreak of hostilities on Israel’s northern border last summer, Israel’s novice chief of staff ignored the army’s plan for just such a contingency and proposed his own.

When he brought it to the novice defense minister, the latter rejected it and offered his own plan.

When this was brought before the novice prime minister, he and his Cabinet approved the defense minister’s plan without understanding its implications for a war for which Israel was unprepared.

This reconstruction of events, which blames Israel’s three top decision-makers for the country’s poor showing in the monthlong war against Hezbollah, emerges from Israeli newspaper accounts published on the eve of a report by a government-appointed commission investigating what went wrong.

The commission’s findings, due in a few days, may decide the political futures of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, then chief of staff, anticipated the findings by resigning in January.

According to the extensive accounts in the Ma’ariv and Ha’aretz newspapers, Gen. Halutz met with the general staff July 12 a few hours after eight soldiers were killed in a Hezbollah incursion on the Lebanese border and two taken into captivity.

The Israel Defense Forces had a contingency plan for such a situation. It called for an intensive air and artillery attack on Hezbollah for two days followed by a pause to assess the situation and to permit mobilization of reserve forces.

If Hezbollah responded by firing rockets into Israel, three divisions would be sent into southern Lebanon.

Army’s plan rejected

Gen. Halutz told his generals he would not implement that plan. Instead, he proposed a massive air attack against Lebanon’s infrastructure, particularly electricity grids, to force the government in Beirut to take action against Hezbollah. Reserves would not be mobilized, and ground incursions would be limited to eliminating Hezbollah positions just across the border.

A former combat pilot and commander of the Israel Air Force, Gen. Halutz had been named chief of staff a year earlier, the first officer in that post who did not come from the ground forces.

He was convinced that air power alone could subdue Hezbollah, and he made it clear he was not interested in debating this with the armor and infantry generals on his staff, who strongly disagreed.

Gen. Halutz took his proposal to the defense minister, Mr. Peretz, a former labor union leader with almost no military background, who had been appointed to the ministerial post two months earlier.

Chief of staff overruled

Although he has been dismissed by the press until now as out of his depth, newspaper accounts show Mr. Peretz as displaying healthy instincts during the crisis and not fearing to challenge his military advisers.

He ruled out Gen. Halutz’s proposal for knocking out up to half of Lebanon’s electricity and other vital infrastructure. Mr. Peretz said the international community would not accept such action that would undermine the pro-Western government of Fuad Siniora. Infrastructure could be hit only if it could be shown to reduce Hezbollah’s capabilities, he said.

When Mr. Peretz asked about the thousands of rockets in Hezbollah’s possession, Gen. Halutz said the air force could not effectively stop the short-range Katyusha missiles, which could be hidden easily and brought out for use. However, intelligence knew the locations of most medium- and long-range rockets, larger and more dangerous than the Katyushas, and could destroy them but did not intend to do so in the opening stage.

Cabinet backs Peretz

To the generals’ surprise, Mr. Peretz said these missiles should be hit with the opening blow that night. If Israel responded only after Hezbollah fired its longer-range missiles, he said, it would seem that once again the initiative lay with Hezbollah.

At a Cabinet meeting that evening where the final decision was made, Mr. Olmert and his ministers accepted with minor alterations the proposal Mr. Peretz laid before them.

Gen. Halutz noted that the longer-range missiles were installed inside houses inhabited by villagers in southern Lebanon who received payment from Hezbollah. To hit them meant the certain death of noncombatants.

The head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, said that those sheltering the missiles were hardly noncombatants. The government legal adviser was asked his opinion, and said international law permitted such an attack.

Intelligence ignored

Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign-intelligence service, advocated delaying the attack by two days in order to prepare Israel’s northern communities for the rocketing that would surely erupt. He was overruled.

Only one man at the meeting, Gen. Amos Gilad, a senior adviser to Mr. Peretz, said that Israel could not rely on air and artillery alone and that a major ground operation would have to be undertaken. His remarks drew no reaction. The government, in fact, stated that no ground incursion would be started.

One of the generals attending the meeting told a colleague as they left that the ministers did not understand the significance of their decision: a war involving prolonged rocketing of northern Israel.

As Amir Rapaport, the author of the Ma’ariv account, wrote, the ministers thought they were authorizing a punitive operation that would last a few hours or perhaps a few days, not a war that would last a month and displace 1 million residents.

Ground clash avoided

They rejected Gen. Halutz’s proposal for a massive attack on Lebanon’s infrastructure for political reasons, and Gen. Halutz had rejected a ground incursion without offering a viable alternative except air strikes, which could not stop the Katyushas.

Although Mr. Peretz felt that a ground attack would be necessary, Mr. Rapaport wrote, he did not have the experience to convert his instincts into policy or to fully understand the ramifications of the policy adopted.

Both he and Mr. Olmert preferred a policy that avoided ground battles certain to involve high casualties, and indulged that wish instead of thinking through the question of how to stop the Katyushas.

It was more than two weeks into the war before the government decided to send several divisions into Lebanon, but even then, it was done with hesitancy and conflicting orders.

As one Israeli division commander put it: “All our activity was the antithesis of war.”

If an experienced military man like Ariel Sharon had been in charge, it could have been a much different war. In any case, it is virtually certain that Israel will not again entrust its armed forces to someone who never led divisions on the ground.

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