Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Israel's Leadership Crisis

Writer's note: this entry was created on 14 August, in the aftermath of Israel's acceptace of the cease-fire in Lebanon. At the time, I was traveling, and lacked internet access to post these remarks on Israel's lack of resolve/leadership at a critical juncture in the nation's history.

As Israeli troops begin their withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the second-guessing and finger-pointing are well underway. Speaking before the Knesset on the eve of the cease-fire, former PM Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a stinging rebuke of the Israeli war effort, and the leadership of the current Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. Israel’s former UN Ambassador, Dore Gold, told a U.S. radio audience on Monday that an official Commission of Inquiry will be appointed to review war planning and execution.

Clearly, such criticism and investigations are warranted. As we noted yesterday, Mr. Olmert literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Less than 48 hours after announcing expanded IDF ground operations in Lebanon—and a planned march to the Latani River—Mr. Olmert meekly accepted a cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and France. From the Israeli perspective, that deal should have been rejected as untenable; Mr. Olmert has entrusted his nation’s security (or at a minimum, the security of northern Israel) to an “enhanced” U.N. peacekeeping force that, like its predecessor, seems unlikely to take on Hizballah, as first step toward securing south Lebanon. In fact, if recent history is any indicator, it’s probably just a matter of time before reconstituted terrorist units set up shop outside peacekeeper camps, with the Hizaballah flag fluttering alongside the U.N. banner. .

Mr. Olmert is also showing inordinate faith in the Lebanese government and its so-called “army,” which will share security responsibilities in the south. The Israeli Prime Minister blithely ignores the fact that various Lebanese officials have praised Hizballah for “defending” Lebanon, and that the terrorist organization is a major influence in the current government. Lebanon’s defense minister has already announced that his forces will “not do Israel’s job” by disarming Hizballah. If anything, the proposed security force for southern Lebanon may emerge as a terrorist protection organization. It’s little wonder that Hizballah’s leadership is already crowing about their “victory” against Israel.

Trying to put the best face on a bad situation, the Israeli government (and President Bush) have tried to highlight the IDF’s operational and tactical successes against the terrorists. And their praise is valid—up to a point. True, IDF units fought well, and won every engagement on the ground. Israeli troops also proved adaptive in fighting against foes who were well dug-in and used civilians as human shields. On several occasions, IDF commandos were dispatched on high-risk missions to minimize collateral damage. When Hizaballah tried to overcome Israel’s advantage in armor (by using advanced anti-tank missiles at long range), the IDF sent in sniper teams to eliminate terrorist gunners, allowing Israeli armor to punch through.

But those “successes” carry little weight in a conflict largely defined by media coverage and a lack of political willpower within the Israeli government. When the IAF was accused of killing “innoncent” civilians in the Lebanese town of Qana, the Ohlmert government ordered an immediate halt to the bombing, while an “investigation” was conduced. Never mind that the “civilians” apparently died hours after the bombing; nor that their building wasn’t struck directly by Israeli bombs, nor that the IAF destroyed another rocket launcher in one of Qana’s “civilian” neighborhoods a few days later. By that time, the Israeli template of timidity and hesitation had been established, and Hizballah ruthlessly exploited Tel Aviv’s wavering resolve, aided and abetted by a compliant western media.

If Israeli claims of victory sound a little hollow, they should. In fact, they’re a bit reminiscent of U.S. post-mortems in Vietnam, where success was often quantified by the numbers of bombs dropped, or the weekly, enemy “body count.” Years after the war, U.S. strategist Colonel Harry Summers met with the legendary North Vietnamese commander, General Gaip, and reminded him of American successes on the battlefield. “We won every battle,” Summers remarked. “That is true,” Giap replied, “but it is also irrelevant.” At the end of the day, it was the U.S. that left Vietnam, while the North’s tanks rumbled into Saigon.

Thirty-one years later, it is Israel that is leaving south Lebanon, after barely one month of combat operations. Stunned at the sudden reversal of events, some returning Israeli soldiers are mounting a petition drive to continue the war effort, which they believe was halted prematurely. Their anger is shared by many ordinary Israelis; though surprised by Hizballah’s resistance and targeted by daily rocket barrages, they were willing to see the conflict through, whatever the cost.

Instead, they have been left with a doomed cease-fire, a residual terrorist menace across their northern border, and an ineffective U.N. security force to deal with the problem. It’s a combination that will send political shockwaves across Israel, and (hopefully) put a quick end to the government that created this debacle. Though it sounds cruel, some Israelis are openly speculating over who will expire first: Ehud Ohlmert’s Kadima-led coalition, or the party’s comatose founder, Ariel Sharon.

Like Sharon, Mr. Olmert viewed the Kadima movement as something of a “third way” in Israeli politics, uniting elements of the left and right. After defeating the latest intifada, Mr. Sharon believed he had the political capital—and security presence—to give back the Gaza Strip and make additional concessions to Israel’s enemies, with little more than vague promises in return. When Sharon was felled by a stroke earlier this year, Mr. Olmert inherited leadership of the party--despite a stunning lack of military experience--and won an electoral victory, with the pledge to continue his predecessor's policies.

It is doubtful that Mr. Sharon, a retired general and genuine military hero, would have waged such as fitful campaign against Hizballah. But, it fairness, it should be noted that Olmert inherited Sharon’s security team, including the generals he appointed to lead the IDF, including current Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Dan Halutz. Collectively, the brightest minds of the IDF put together a plan that failed to accurately assess the Hizballah threat, over-estimated the effectiveness of Israeli airpower, and was implemented haltingly. It was a recipe for strategic defeat that negated the IDF’s victories at the operational and tactical levels.

In recent weeks, there has been much speculation as to whether current events more closely resemble 1938, when the western powers, so anxious to avoid another world war, made every effort to appease Adolf Hitler, and found themselves in that very type of conflict a year later. Others argue that 2006 looks more like 1914, when the nations of Europe stumbled blindly along the path to World War I.

But from a military and political perspective, Israel’s inept Prime Minister and his security cabinet seem similar to another group of politcians and generals, who ran Great Britain in the decade before World War II. In 1931, future British PM Stanley Baldwin announced that his nation would put its money on strategic airpower as a deterrent, claiming that “the bomber will always get through.” In 1936, as the occupant of #10 Downing Street, Mr. Baldwin got a chance to test his theories, when Hitler and his fledgling military machine marched into the Rhineland. Mr. Baldwin, of course, did nothing, and was eventually turned out of office, leaving it up to his protégé—Neville Chamberlain—to try the politics of appeasement with Herr Hitler.

One reason Mr. Baldwin failed to act in 1936 is because his 1931 claim was largely an idle boast. As a USAF historian later noted, few nations ever embraced the “cult” of offensive airpower with the fervor of Great Britain, and few did as little to give the air arm the personnel and equipment needed to develop strategic capabilities. The RAF of 1936 was a largely hollow force, just as it had been in 1931. While probably sufficient to support ground troops in stopping Hitler in 1936, it was not the decisive instrument of power that Baldwin described five years earlier.

Seven decades later, the problem in Israel is just the opposite. Israel has the military capabilities required to defeat its enemies, but the resolve of its leadership remains very much in doubt. Given the choice between continuing a protracted conflict and accepting a fatally flawed cease-fire, Olmert chose the latter, postponing the task of dealing with Israel’s mortal enemies, and emboldening Hizaballah to continue its campaign of terror and death. Paraphrasing Churchill's famous remarks on Baldwin's protege, Neville Chamberlain, the Israeli Prime Minister had a choice between war and dishonor. He chose dishonor, and he will certainly have war again, after an illusory cease-fire. Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Chamberlain, meet Mr. Olmert.

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