A hat tip to Scott Johnson at Powerline, who was among the first to spot this disturbing report from the Sunday Times of London. Quoting Israeli intelligence sources, the paper notes that Hizballah fighters are back in southern Lebanon, in greater numbers than ever before, and with an even larger rocket arsenal than they had before last summer's conflict with Israel.
One Israeli intelligence officer told the Times that the resupply of Hizballah has continued unabated since the cease-fire went into effect in August. He estimated that the terrorist group now has at least 20,000 rockets "of all ranges," a "bit more than they had before July 12th," when the month-long war with Israel began.
Hizballah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, claims that his organization has an even larger stockpile. In a recent interview with the Hizballah TV station, Nasrallah claimed that his group now has over 30,000 rockets, or enough for five months' of war. Israeli intelligence is alarmed by Hizballah's continued build-up, and according to the Times, has warned the government that the conflict could begin anew, possibly by the spring of 2007. Other observers, including British military history Sir John Keegan, believe the timeline for renewed fighting is much shorter, suggesting that the war may resume before the end of this year.
Obviously, Israel cannot tolerate the continued expansion of Hizballah forces and its rocket arsenal in south Lebanon, which is occurring under the very noses of U.N. forces. However, U.N. commanders have made it clear that their mission does not include the disarming of Hizballah, or blocking new arms shipments from Syria and Iran. In fact, senior U.N. commanders in southern Lebanon have reserved their greatest concern for Israeli reconnaissance flights over the area; at one point last week, French troops were prepared to fire on Israeli aircraft or recce drones. Meanwhile, those trucks from Syria just keep coming, and Hizballah's arsenal continues to grow.
Facing an obvious--and growing--menace, the challenge for the Israeli government is clear, yet daunting: how much longer can they allow the Hizballah build-up to continue, and when military action becomes imperative, what does the IDF do to avoid the mistakes of last summer? The Sunday Times article notes that the Israelis are taking steps to increase the term of military service, merging special forces units into a single division, and working with the U.S. on improved anti-rocket defenses. But none of these measures represent a viable strategy for dealing with the Hizballah threat. When the conflict began last summer, the Israelis found themselves befuddled and unable to respond to a rapidly evolving operational environment. As we noted last week, an Israeli assessment has concluded that the Olmert government (and the IDF) suffered from "conceptual collapse" during the war, unable to develop a coherent strategy or articulate identifiable goals.
Three months later, we can safely assume that Israeli strategy is being overhauled, and the next war in Lebanon will be less muddled than the last one. But updating operational plans to reflect revised strategy takes time. So does the deployment of new anti-rocket systems and the consolidation of special forces into a single command. Couple those mandates with on-going efforts to absorb other lessons learned, and you've got some idea of what the IDF is going through these days. Make no mistake; the Israeli military remains the most powerful force n the Middle East, but (as we saw last summer) such might cannot achieve desired results without a coherent strategy, and well-defined, achievable goals at the operational and tactical levels.
On Friday, we noted the appointment of Brigadier General Ephraim Sneh as Deputy Defense Minister, a post he has held in previous governments. General Sneh's return to the MOD is viewed widely as an attempt by PM Olmert to get the ministry back on track, and develop more effective strategies for dealing with the "local" terrorist threat, and regional menace posed by Iran's missile and nuclear programs. In one of his first interviews since assuming the Deputy MOD post, General Sneh offered a strong warning to Tehran, noting that Israel must be prepared to act alone (if necessary), and observing that sometimes the last option is the only option.
Sneh's comments were greeted with the typical bombast for Iran, and perhaps more surprisingly, sharp criticism from within his own country. According to the Jerusalem Post:
Sneh has also been blasted by several fellow lawmakers, with Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On calling his comments "irresponsible rabble rousing."
Others, including a legislator from Sneh's own Labor Party, said the comments may have been made to prompt Treasury officials to up defense spending in the 2007 state budget.
"Sneh became deputy defense minister and the week after he is issuing doomsday warnings. That seems like pretty typical behavior for someone who is trying to scare up more funds," said one Labor MK.
Even Prime Minister Olmert--enroute to Washington for talks with President Bush--chided Mr. Sneh, telling reporters that there "was a need to speak carefully on the Iranian issue."
Judging from those remarks, it seems that Israel's greatest problem remains a lack of resolve at the highest levels of government. Mr. Olmert retains primary responsibility for last summer's fiasco in Lebanon, largely because he could never decide exactly how his military should respond to Hizballah's attacks, and successfully articulate his strategy to the Israeli people. Of course, it's difficult to sell something that doesn't exist, although Democratic politicians have often proved otherwise.
As storm clouds gather over Lebanon, the most pressing concern is that, based on his rhetoric and actions, Mr. Olmert still hasn't come to grips with the terrorist threat in his own backyard, let alone the missile and WMD menace that lingers beyond the horizon. If the Israeli PM commits himself to a decisive course of action, the issues of strategy and tactics would take care of themselves. But without firm leadership from the top, military responses from Israel are likely to remain muddled, and only embolden her enemies.