JERUSALEM. — A pproaching a cafe I frequent in Jerusalem, two weeks into Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006, I saw the shift manager drive away early. At my querying look, he stopped and held aloft a pair of reddish boots. Paratrooper boots. The young man, an officer in the reserves, was signaling that mobilization had begun. He looked somber but eager to go.
A month later, home from the war, he joined me at my table and said it had been an awful experience. The problem had not been Hezbollah but the Israeli command. He and his team had laid up every day in the bush waiting for night action, he said. But night after night the order did not come. When it did, it was generally rescinded. When they moved to another location, it would prove pointless and they moved again. It eventually dawned on them that the military command did not know what it wanted.
Similar stories of frustration would be heard from countless veterans. Last week, the government-appointed Winograd Commission confirmed that a hesitant military command and a strategically challenged political leadership had been the central factors in “the first war Israel did not win.”
The vaunted Israeli army, which has defeated Arab armies numbering hundreds of thousands of men, was unable to prevent a guerrilla force of only a few thousand fighters from firing 4,000 rockets into Israel over the course of a month. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli reservists, responding to a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, were within less than a day plunging outnumbered into the fiercest tank battles since World War II and driving the enemy back. But in Lebanon two years ago the outsized Israeli army seemed paralyzed.
The commission placed responsibility principally on then chief of staff Gen. Dan Halutz, the first fighter pilot ever to command the ground army. With Hezbollah’s seizure of two soldiers in a cross-border raid, Israel launched a massive aerial response. After four days, the target bank was exhausted but Halutz ordered air attacks to continue. Officers on the general staff said only a ground incursion could suppress the rockets. However, Gen. Halutz believed the war could be won by air power alone. It was only 11 days later that mobilization was authorized.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had backed Gen. Halutz’ approach since it meant avoiding ground casualties. Not until 60 hours before a cease-fire was to go into effect did Israel finally launch a multidivision attack; it petered out ineffectively.
Israel’s war leaders were the most inexperienced in the country’s history. Gen. Halutz had shot down Arab planes but never commanded ground battles. Neither Mr. Olmert nor Defense Minister Amir Peretz had meaningful military or strategic planning experience.
But the army’s problems went much deeper. For seven years, it had focused on suppressing the Palestinian uprising. Many tank and infantry units had held no field exercises in years.
Operational mindset emphasized avoidance of casualties. If a Palestinian gunman holed up in a house, troops were rarely sent in after him. If dogs did not ferret him out, the house was demolished with bulldozers or explosives. This mindset carried over into what the commission saw as a grossly exaggerated attempt to avoid casualties in Lebanon, as if the troops were still engaged in a policing operation, not a war.
“The format was not to conquer or severely hurt the enemy but to conduct raids. Soldiers and commanders did not understand why they needed to risk their lives to raid a place that shortly would be evacuated,” the commission reported. Doctrine once sacrosanct to Israeli armies, like pressing home attacks to success, fell by the wayside.
Analysts agree the army has been returned to fighting form in the last 1½ years under new commanders. The central advice offered it by the Winograd Commission report is that Israel must win its futures wars decisively:
“Israel cannot survive in this region, unless people in Israel and its surroundings believe that it has the leadership, military capabilities and social robustness that deters those who wish to harm her.”
Abraham Rabinovich is a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post and a regular contributor to The Washington Times. His recent book is, “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East.”