Yuval Steinitz must have spent the last couple of months gloating - or at least feeling vindicated. As chairman of the previous Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, a position he held for three and a half years, the Likud MK pounded on many proverbial tables, warning of Israel's lack of preparedness in the face of apparent and looming threats, which he attributes to the "arrogance and complacency" of the defense establishment.
But this, says the 48-year-old former philosophy lecturer at Haifa University - who became a member of Knesset in July 1999 - is only part of the problem. Putting the handling of the war into a broader perspective, he invokes the thesis of historian Victor Davis Hanson to analyze Israel's overall military predicament. "Our war culture has shifted" from the "Western" tradition of defeating the enemy with a "knock out," he asserts, to one in which "there is no such thing as victory."
This assessment is a far cry from Steinitz's past worldview. A leftist-turned-Likudnik, Steinitz was among those who demonstrated outside of prime minister Menachem Begin's house during the last war in Lebanon. He was even wounded during the famous Peace Now protest in 1983, when a grenade killed fellow activist Emil Grunzweig. It is thus either the height of irony or logic that Steinitz dates the shift away from victory-driven warfare he so bemoans to the 1980s.
In an interview at his home in Mevaseret last week, the outspoken opposition member - whose hour-long diatribe painted a very pessimistic picture of the nation's current plight - nevertheless professed optimism.
How was Israel taken by surprise by this war? Was it a failure of intelligence?
Contrary to certain claims, during this war, our intelligence was actually good. We knew about Hizbullah's 13,000 missiles; we knew their types, ranges and where they were hidden - which is why we initially succeeded in destroying a large number of them.
We knew about the bunkers, the location of the training bases and the identity of the fighters. We had a good sense of Hizbullah logistics and intelligence, drafting of trainees and fighting units.
If there was a problem of intelligence, it lay elsewhere - in two areas. The first concerns the transfer of relevant information to the units in the field. It's not enough for the security services to uncover crucial information on bunkers or operations in a certain village in Lebanon, for example. That information has to reach the soldiers sent in to perform a mission there. And I'm not sure that during this war, the relevant information always did reach them. This is a problem of the flow of information from the command to the field that often occurs, when there's a change of mission or other reasons. But apparently, in this war, the flow was especially poor.
The second, more significant problem has to do with a failure to internalize the meaning of the intelligence gathered. In 1973, for example, due to excellent intelligence gathering, we knew that the Egyptians were heavily equipped with Sagger anti-tank missiles. But, with all our arrogance and complacency, we thought that our tanks could easily handle them. It was only after the first few days of the war that we realized we were wrong. When our tanks tried to move forward, and encountered an almost impenetrable wall of tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers armed with Saggers, we suddenly grasped that there had been a change in Egyptian warfare which required our immediate attention and changes of our own.
In other words, sometimes you have intelligence, but you don't understand it.
When I finished my stint as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, I warned that such arrogance and complacency in the defense establishment and upper echelons of the IDF could lead to our losing the next war. The IDF was furious, and accused me of not knowing the difference between self-confidence and complacency.
This sounds more like a psychological problem than a military one.
It's also a conceptual problem. For several years now, the IDF has been operating according to a concept of aerial control. This concept was reinforced after the war in Iraq, where US Air Force dominance was responsible for a smooth victory over the huge Iraqi army, with relatively few casualties.
According to this concept, modern technology makes it no longer necessary to infiltrate enemy territory from the ground. Though this is sometimes true, it is not true in two cases: either if you want to defeat the enemy by completely clearing its forces out of a certain area, as we should have done with Hizbullah in southern Lebanon; or if you want to remove the enemy's artillery - or missile-fire capabilities.
This is why, in 2004, the foreign affairs and defense committee, particularly the subcommittees on preparedness headed by Omri Sharon, conducted a series of discussions with IDF and defense establishment sources on what action they would take in the event of a sudden flare-up in the North and full-scale confrontation with Hizbullah. At the conclusion of one of these discussions, I said to the IDF brass present: "Hey, people, the bottom line of everything that has emerged during these talks is that - with all due respect and appreciation for IAF technological advances - we don't have an aerial solution to Hizbullah's missiles. If Hizbullah opens fire on the center of Israel, sending millions of Israelis into bomb shelters, the damage to morale and the economy will be catastrophic. So, you have to prepare a plan for a quick, 2-3-day takeover of southern Lebanon, up to and beyond the Litani River."
In 2005, we again held a series of in-depth discussions with experts, and invited [former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe] Boogie Ya'alon to the final session. During that session, I told Ya'alon that we were under an illusion about our aerial capabilities with regard to defending the residents of the North or the center from missile-fire from Lebanon, and that plans needed to be drawn up immediately to ensure a swift occupation of southern Lebanon in the event that it becomes necessary.
How did Ya'alon respond to this?
He said, "If we need to, we will."
The IDF brass clearly thought that they could bomb southern Lebanon so heavily that any threat that emerged would promptly be quashed; that every missile launcher would be immediately destroyed; and that within a few days, they'd be able to achieve virtual paralysis of enemy fire.
In spite of all the research and evidence your subcommittees provided?
The IDF had a lot of its own research on various technologies, some of which hadn't even been tried out yet. We were skeptical, since Lebanon is a large country comprised of many towns and villages and all sorts of terrain, with many hiding places. In any case, the fact is that we warned and warned and warned. And our warnings weren't taken seriously.
Who didn't take your warnings seriously? The chief of staff?
Yes, but our findings also reached the defense minister and the prime minister. [Prime minister Ariel] Sharon, by the way, did take the warnings seriously, possibly because his son, Omri, had been involved in the discussions. I remember hearing Omri repeatedly tell IDF officers that they didn't have a solution for the missile problem or for defending the home front, certainly not without engaging in a serious battle. So Sharon understood the problem of relying solely on the Air Force. The current leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz neither understood it nor questioned the validity of IDF dogma.
In fairness to Olmert and Peretz, they inherited this situation and set of IDF concepts.
That makes no difference. I expect an incoming defense minister presented with a set of scenarios to ask questions and cast doubt on those that don't sound viable.
Was there enough time between Peretz's appointment as defense minister and the outbreak of the war for him to have been presented with these scenarios?
As far as I know, yes. And he should have been asking questions like: "Have we tried this and that before?" or, "What happens if such and such doesn't work?"
That's the responsibility of a political leadership. That's why I'm not only blaming the army. Armies can be wrong. Because of that, leaders have to have experience and a certain degree of skepticism. That's why there are Churchills and Ben-Gurions - and, in situations like this, even Sharons. The leadership of Olmert and Peretz is totally weak in the field of national security. Neither ever took an interest in it, or wrote a single article on the subject.
Yet they inherited a defense budget cut by former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a severe shortage of equipment for the troops, particularly the reservists.
It's simply not true about the defense budget, which hadn't been cut in recent years. On the contrary, it was slightly raised, to fund the security fence and disengagement. But that's not the responsibility of the finance minister. The finance minister wants to cut everybody's budget. It is the prime minister and the defense minister who should have increased the defense budget, given the current security situation. That wasn't done. The only cut in the defense budget was made in June by Peretz and Olmert, who brought before the Knesset a cut of half a billion shekels, and committed to cutting another 2-4 billion shekels next year.
In spite of the realignment plan they intended to implement? Wouldn't that require additional funds, they way the fence and disengagement did?
No, there's no connection, because realignment, like disengagement, was presented as a special budget. There's a defense budget committee in the Knesset comprised of 12 members. Eleven members supported the cut; only one member opposed and protested that it would be a grave mistake. That's me. That was only two or three months ago! Now, all of a sudden, everybody's wise.
How is it that with Kassams flying in the South, Katyushas in the North and with the Iranian threat looming so large, there was such overwhelming support for a cut in the defense budget?
There was a kind of hysteria in Israel - a fashion, almost - on the part of the public, the media and popular culture about the need to cut the defense budget. As if to say, "Enough already! We're a normal country, and anybody who says otherwise doesn't know what he's talking about."
In this cultural milieu, security is art, culture, health, social justice. Security is everything but security. Well, that's all over with now. Suddenly we opened our eyes and understood that there are real threats out there.
This is not to say that the blame shouldn't be shared with the previous defense leadership. Former defense minister Shaul Mofaz also said that it was the end of the conventional warfare era. So, of course, the IDF prepared itself less and less for ground and sea operations.
I've spent the last few years arguing over this with the establishment. Where did they come up with the idea that the threat of conventional war against Israel is over? Egypt is building a massive army, with tanks and artillery and everything else, all aimed at Israel. What does this mean? That the Egyptians are stupid, and don't understand that the era of conventional warfare is over?
The Syrians are investing huge sums of money in their air force and tank divisions, because they understand that these are the areas in which they are inferior militarily to Israel. They're also investing heavily in missiles and bunkers and developing their own weapons. Do they not understand that conventional warfare is a thing of the past?
How does the defense establishment respond to your arguments?
By insisting that conventional warfare is becoming obsolete the world over. So I point out that just because Israel hasn't been involved in a conventional war for 24 years doesn't mean it won't be again in the future.
The problem with adhering to such a notion as "the end of conventional warfare," you neglect to train the reservists properly, and send them to guard roadblocks in Judea and Samaria instead of training them for battle; and you neglect to reinforce your tanks properly.
You refer to the rude awakening the country received during this war. What now? Is the IDF training differently for the next war?
First of all, I'm not sure how much "awakening" was done. The problem with investigating the blunders that occurred is neglecting those that didn't. One of the realizations this war should have led to is the need to be able to call up the reserves while under fire. What we experienced in this war is nothing compared to what it would have been like had we been attacked on several fronts simultaneously. And I'm not sure the army really grasps that, because Hizbullah fired mainly on civilians, not so much on military bases.
The IDF definitely has to change its priorities, yet there is still a worrisome underestimation of the threat we are under. For example, the response to the Egyptian build-up is that we have peace with Egypt. Where Syria is concerned, the claim is that the Syrian army is old and rusty. That's nonsense. The Syrian army is only old and rusty in areas the Syrians don't want to invest in: They're neglecting their planes, but enhancing their missile capability.
Is war with Syria imminent? We have troops in the Golan that weren't there before.
I'm partially responsible for that. During the war, we were concerned that with all the focus in Lebanon, we were neglecting the Syrian front, while the Syrians were at heightened military preparedness.
But there's a much more fundamental problem: with Israel's war culture. In his recent book, Victor Davis Hanson raises a very interesting question: Why, with some exceptions, has the West historically won its wars? He explains that the democracies of ancient Greece developed a completely different culture of war than that of the Near East whose monarchs considered warfare a sport between two enemies, at the end of which the victor gained the revenues of the people previously indebted to the loser. Ancient Greece, on the other hand, perceived the spoils of war to be the most precious of all things: freedom. Fighting for freedom was the beginning of democracy.
Therefore, obtaining a "knock-out" defeat of the enemy, as opposed to a mere shifting of power, was of the essence. Israel's has traditionally been a classic case of Western warfare. In every war, Ben-Gurion aspired to completely dismantle the enemy's capabilities. Even in the War of Independence, when the army was exhausted and suffered heavy casualties, Ben-Gurion was not satisfied with pushing the enemy back, but continued fighting to paralyze its ability to resume fighting for at least several years. This was the culture of war in 1956 and 1967, as well. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 was the best example of it. In 1982, there was an argument about whether the war should be tactical or strategic. Sharon favored the latter, and even crossed a fine line beyond democratic legitimacy to achieve it.
Since then, Israel's war culture has evolved into a non-Western one, according to which there is no such thing as a real victory. Olmert's and Peretz's behavior is an extreme symptom of this shift.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I'm optimistic. A miracle occurred here. All our arrogance, complacency and weakness were brought to the surface by Hizbullah - something that will enable us to learn from our mistakes and prepare for greater threats. I hope that within six months we will have made significant changes.
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