Our World: Hizbullah’s media champions

For 10 years Israel has been paying the price for the withdrawal from Lebanon. And yet even now, the Israeli press is still presenting the event as an act of strategic genius and political courage.

May 11, 2010 11:06
Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

ehud barak 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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A few weeks shy of the 10th anniversary of Israel’s May 24, 2000 unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon, last Friday Yediot Aharonot chose to devote its weekend news supplement to a retrospective on the event. It included a fawning five-page interview with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who ordered the withdrawal during his tenure as prime minister and defense minister. It also included a two-page spread featuring interviews with the IDF commanders who carried out the withdrawal, recalling their adrenalin rushes as they retreated their forces across the border.

Nearly hidden between the two puff pieces was a little article titled “We told you so.”

It featured an interview with retired former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid who opposed the withdrawal. He told Yediot that in hindsight, he’s glad the withdrawal went through, even though it led directly to the wars that followed. Following Sarid’s self-congratulatory modesty, Yediot gave former defense minister Moshe Arens and National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau a sound bite apiece to lash out at the withdrawal. That base covered, the paper dismissed them both as “right-wingers.”

ALTHOUGH UPSETTING, Yediot’s treatment of the Lebanon withdrawal was not surprising. The unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon – which was a failure on every rational level – was a strategy concocted and championed for the better part of a decade by Yediot and its media colleagues at Israel Radio. The paper’s decision to publish a 10-year anniversary retrospective two weeks early was undoubtedly an attempt to preempt and prevent any further discussion of the withdrawal.

Yediot praised it as a work of operational genius because no one was wounded, kidnapped or killed during the 48-hour retreat. Of course, by presenting force protection as the IDF’s highest goal, the paper ignored basic strategic realities.

The fact is that the withdrawal was an operational fiasco. In its rush to the border, the IDF left behind huge quantities of sensitive equipment that Hizbullah commandeered. Israel abandoned thousands of loyal allies from the South Lebanon Army and their families to the tender mercies of Hizbullah. These were men who had fought shoulder to shoulder with the IDF since 1982. Those who managed to escape to Israel before the gates were locked were treated as unwanted deadweight by Barak and his media flacks, who couldn’t be bothered with the treachery at the heart of the operation.

The withdrawal was a military defeat. It weakened Israel and strengthened Hizbullah. Without the security zone, Israel had no buffer between its civilian population and Hizbullah. For its part, Hizbullah set itself up in the IDF’s abandoned fortifications and imposed its full control over south Lebanon.

Israel’s strategic incoherence and incompetence after the withdrawal was showcased just four months later. When Hizbullah forces penetrated Mount Dov and kidnapped soldiers Benny Avraham, Omar Sawayid and Adi Avitan, Barak had no idea what to do. So he did nothing.

The soldiers were killed and Israel released hundreds of terrorists from its prisons to secure the return of their bodies four years later. Interestingly, the names Avraham, Sawayid and Avitan didn’t make it into Yediot’s 10-year anniversary retrospective.

The withdrawal was a regional failure. Immediately after the withdrawal, Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat ordered Fatah chief Marwan Barghouti to form the Aksa Brigades terror cells comprised of Fatah members and to form the Popular Resistance Committee terror network that combined Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror cells.

Four months later, after rejecting Barak’s offer of Palestinian statehood at Camp David, Arafat ordered his forces to launch the Palestinian jihad.

The withdrawal from Lebanon showed Arafat that Hizbullah commander Hassan Nasrallah was right to liken Israel to a spider web that would collapse at the slightest provocation. Lebanon taught Arafat that there was no reason to negotiate a peace deal. If pressed, Israel would lose the will to fight and surrender.

The withdrawal was a political failure. To justify his decision to surrender south Lebanon to Iran’s Lebanese proxy force, Barak and his media flacks repeatedly presented the false claim that Hizbullah only fought Israel because it was in Lebanon. If the IDF were to pick up its marbles and go home, Hizbullah would naturally disband.

This historically false, intuitively nutty assertion gave credence to the false Arab-leftist narrative which argues that Israel’s size, rather than the Arab world’s refusal to accept a Jewish state in the Levant, is the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

AS HIZBULLAH’S subsequent buildup, continued aggression and eventual de facto takeover of the Lebanese government all showed, Hizbullah was not an Israeli creation. It was formed by Teheran to serve the needs of the ayatollahs. Its continued existence, strength and aggression are dictated not by Israeli actions but by Iranian interests. So too, the wider Arab conflict with Israel predated the 1967 Six Day War and it won’t end if Israel shrinks into the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. It won’t end until either Israel is destroyed or the Arabs decide that they are finally willing to accept a Jewish state in their midst.

The withdrawal from Lebanon set the conditions for the 2006 Second Lebanon War. It provided Hizbullah with the political cachet in Lebanon and regionally to rearm. And it gave Shi’ite, non-Arab Iran unprecedented popularity among the Sunni Arab masses. Even more devastatingly, the withdrawal – which set the course for the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the Olmert government’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from Judea and Samaria – discredited the one strategy that could have brought Israel a strategic victory in 2006: reassertion of its control over the border area in south Lebanon.

For 10 years Israel has been paying the price for the withdrawal from Lebanon. And yet even now, with Hizbullah fielding guided missiles capable of hitting Dimona and in control of the Lebanese government and military, which itself receives advanced weapons from the US, the media, led by Yediot are still presenting the withdrawal as an act of strategic genius and political courage.

CONSIDER THE following representative extract from the paper’s interview with Barak.

Q: “The most significant argument [against the withdrawal] is that the withdrawal is what built up Hizbullah. That we are responsible for its increased strength.”

A: “That is... completely incorrect. When we left, Hizbullah already had 7,000 rockets, which is nearly twice what it fired during the Second Lebanon War. [In 2000] it already had rockets with sufficient range to hit the power station in Hadera. Hizbullah didn’t exist when we went in [in 1982]. It was formed because we were there. Hizbullah’s buildup is not a consequence of our withdrawal from Lebanon, it is the consequence of our stay in Lebanon...

“Hizbullah’s biggest buildup happened six years after the withdrawal, after the Second Lebanon War. Paradoxically, that war, that hurt them badly and created a type of deterrence, after it ended Hizbullah’s buildup escalated in a major way. It had 14,000 rockets in the Second Lebanon War. It fired some of them. And now it has 45,000 that cover the entire country.

“I suggest that we set aside the comforting story we tell ourselves that we supposedly built them up. We didn’t build them up and there’s no reason in the world to think, from everything I know about reality, that if we were in Lebanon now they would have fewer rockets.”

So we built them up, but we have to set aside the comforting fable that we built them up. They were formed because we were in Lebanon and the fact that we’re not in Lebanon has no impact on their buildup.

And how did Yediot respond to Barak’s pearls of strategic wisdom?

Q: “You never stop talking about leadership and making courageous decisions. But you’re not a commentator. You are defense minister and one of the most important people in the Israeli government. Ten years after the withdrawal and four years after the Second Lebanon War, we again hear talk about an inevitable new round of war in the summer. Until when [will we have to fight]?”

This exchange, which is in no way unique, makes two things clear. First, Barak would rather say foolish things than acknowledge the harsh truth of his strategic misstep. Second, led by Yediot, the media prefer to portray Barak’s buffoonery as courageous statecraft rather than acknowledge the massive cost of his failure.

THE QUESTION is why are they acting this way? From Barak’s perspective, the answer is clear. Telling the truth would force him to acknowledge that his tenure as prime minister was a disaster for the country. Moreover, if he were ever courageous enough to acknowledge his failure, rather than listen to what he had to say, the media would shove him into the right-wing ghetto with Arens and Landau. He would lose his status as a brilliant strategist and be castigated as an ideologue.

The media’s commitment to prolonging the fiction that the withdrawal was a stroke of brilliance and blocking all debate on the issue stems from the fact that the withdrawal from Lebanon was a media initiative. The media introduced the foolish notion that Hizbullah only existed because Israel was in south Lebanon.

Yediot, Israel Radio and other major news organs championed the cause of a pullout from Lebanon for a decade. They portrayed EU-financed straw organizations calling for the withdrawal like Four Mothers as mass movements. They demonized IDF commanders for opposing their withdrawal plan. They stifled all voices in the North opposing the move. They castigated all politicians opposing the view as right-wing warmongers or conversely, in the case of Sarid, as hopeless doves. And they catapulted Barak to power in 1999 after he promised them that if elected he would withdraw the IDF from Lebanon within a year of taking office.

Since the withdrawal, the media has ignored its military consequences. They pretended Hizbullah’s abduction of Sawayid, Avitan and Avraham, its cross border attack in Shlomi in 2002 and its military buildup were unrelated to the withdrawal. So too, of course, was Hizbullah’s electoral and extra-electoral takeover of the Lebanese government and its decision to initiate the Second Lebanon War.

They ignored its regional consequences. They preferred to give credence to Arafat’s claim that the Palestinian terror was a popular response to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 over considering the connection between Hizbullah/Iran/Syria and the Palestinians.

They ignored the political consequences of the withdrawal. They opted to support the Arab-leftist narrative that if Israel contracts to the 1949 armistice lines, the Palestinians will make peace. And they continued to advance this lie even after the post-2005 withdrawal Hamas takeover of Gaza.

When people wonder why Israel continues to blunder from defeat to retreat and can’t figure out a way to assert its interests militarily or politically, they need to look no further than Yediot’s 10-year anniversary celebration of the withdrawal from Lebanon. As long as the media continue to portray their ideological fantasies as journalism, no politician will dare to embrace strategic rationality.


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