AFTER EACH of Israel’s 13 wars and battles with its neighbors since independence – Arab states, Palestinian groups and Hezbollah in Lebanon – serious questions were raised about their results and achievements. But the Second Lebanon War is the only one of Israel’s conflicts that resulted in an almost unbridgeable gap between fact and myth, and between reality and perception. It is probably the war that suffered from the worst public relations. It was one both sides didn't want, yet still couldn’t prevent.
The Second Lebanon War began July 12, 2006, and ended 34 days later on August 14; 121 Israeli soldiers and 44 civilians were killed in the conflict. A month ahead of the war’s 10th anniversary the Israeli media, public and academia are engaged in a lively debate on its legacy.
In the years prior to the Second Lebanon War, the IDF was preoccupied in an intensive effort to quash the second Palestinian intifada. This affected its state of mind and preparedness for battle. IDF conscripts and reservists were engaged in fighting Palestinian terrorist networks and had little time for training and exercises.
A few weeks before the war, the IDF was taken by surprise when Gaza-based Hamas guerillas penetrated Israel via a tunnel and took Gilad Schalit, a soldier in a tank battalion, as a prisoner of war in an attack that killed two other Israeli soldiers. A day before the war, the IDF attacked a safe house where Hamas leaders were gathered. The main target was Muhammad Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades.
According to intelligence reports received by the IDF at the time, Deif was killed in the attack. The next day, in a high-level security meeting, the defense chiefs were deliberating the ramifications of his death. During the meeting, a note was brought in informing the participants that two IDF soldiers in a patrol along the northern border in the Galilee had been ambushed by Hezbollah and taken prisoner. Meanwhile, the rumors of Deif’s demise proved premature; like a cat with nine lives, he survived that attack, as well as a few other plots including in the summer of 2014 during the last war in Gaza.
As news of the developments in the North began to pour in 10 years ago, the cabinet convened an urgent meeting and decided to launch a punitive campaign against Hezbollah. This evolved into the Second Lebanon War.
The Israeli public and the international community have come to see the Second Lebanon War as an Israeli failure, but the truth is completely different.
Indeed, many tactical errors were made, however, in a stroke of historical irony reminiscent of General Kutuzov in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the Second Lebanon War provided Israel with a significant strategic achievement: For the past decade, the border with Lebanon has been quite and Hezbollah fears entering into a new round of hostilities with Israel.
During the war, the Shi’ite organization suffered severe damage. Its headquarters in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut were destroyed. Thanks to outstanding strategic intelligence, the Israeli Air Force was able to launch a devastating strike in which it destroyed, in just 34 minutes, Hezbollah’s arsenal of long-range rockets that had been hidden in civilian residences.
But one also cannot ignore the fact that the IDF went into the war without having done the necessary professional groundwork ‒ its operational plans were only partially developed, tactical intelligence was in short supply and didn’t reach the field units and the home front was insufficiently prepared. One can assume, though, that in the decade that has passed, the lessons have been learned and these shortcomings have been remedied.
The facts speak for themselves. The strategic goals set by the political echelon were achieved by the IDF: deterrence of Hezbollah was deepened; the equilibrium with Lebanon has been irrevocably changed; terrorism emanating from Israel’s northern neighbor has disappeared – only four soldiers have been killed on the Lebanese border in the past decade; and not one civilian has suffered so much as a scratch. It is the longest period of quiet (together with the years from the Sinai Campaign to the Six Day War) that Israel has experienced since its founding, and if the sides manage to avoid a miscalculation and conflict that neither wants, the quiet could continue for at least several more years.
So why was the Israeli public left with such a feeling of discontent?
The person responsible is not Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who in a rare moment of candor admitted in a television interview after the war that had he known what its results would be he would never have ordered the operation in which reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped and three other soldiers were killed.
Rather, responsibility for the mistaken perception that the war was a failure lies with the journalists and analysts who covered it in real time from the Lebanese border and competed among themselves as to who would provide a more melodramatic description of a particular tactical failure in battle. Those correspondents and commentators failed to see the wider strategic view, although some have changed their opinion or at least softened their criticism since the war.
And there were others who played their parts, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition; his bureau chief Naftali Bennett, now his coalition partner and head of the Bayit Yehudi party; and Maj.-Gen (res.) Uzi Dayan, who at the time had his own political ambitions and was rewarded by Netanyahu with the job of chairman of the national lottery.
Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of the West Bank settlers, launched a nationwide public campaign portraying the war as a failure as a means of leverage to advance its aim of toppling the government of then prime minister Ehud Olmert.
“The atmosphere at the time was poisonous,” Amir Peretz, Olmert’s defense minister during the war, told me about three years ago. “There was practically a competition to see who could be more scathing in their criticism of the war and its results. Reserve generals, commentators, journalists and politicians all took part. The attacks were mostly against me; they laid into me without mercy and also without any connection to facts.”
Olmert, who is now serving time in prison after being convicted on corruption charges, told me on several occasions in the past: “The war had significant achievements. It took years, but more and more, people have come to realize that and to admit they were wrong. First and foremost, we have quiet along the Lebanese border.”
True, Hezbollah has far greater capabilities today than it did a decade ago – it has more than 120,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, up from around 25,000 at the time of the war. Some 1,000 of its present arsenal are long-range, accurate missiles. It has gained battle experience in the Syrian civil war although it has also suffered some 1,600 dead and 5,000 wounded ‒ but the IDF, too, is a far different organization.
In the next war, if and when it breaks out, Hezbollah’s plans will be different from the 2006 war. The daily rate of rockets and missiles launched against Israel will go up from 120 per day in the last war to 1,200. The longrange missiles carry a much heavier load of up to 500 kg. warheads. Some will be intercepted by Iron Dome and David Sling ground-to-air defenses; some will be destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in preemptive strikes; but some Hezbollah rockets will reach their targets.
The expected damage will be very high and costly. The IDF estimates that hundreds of people will be killed and hundreds of buildings destroyed or damaged. Hezbollah will also try to move the war inside Israeli territory and capture, even for just a few hours, an Israeli rural community along the border.
But, the Israeli reaction also will be much harsher. Hezbollah’s military power will be completely destroyed this time. Lebanon, too, will not be the same. Hezbollah knows it very well and, therefore, has no plans to go for another round. Hezbollah is deterred.
And, not only that. As long as the Syrian civil war continues – and there is no end in sight – the chance of a third Lebanon war is low, mainly thanks to the achievements of the previous round, which many still refuse to recognize. Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy
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