‘What does victory mean?” then foreign minister Tzipi Livni asked then IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz. “What does it look like?” It was late at night on July 12, 2006 and the cabinet had been meeting for several hours. Earlier that morning, a group of Hezbollah terrorists had crossed into Israel, attacked an IDF patrol and abducted two reservists. Their fate was still unknown.
The cabinet had convened in prime minister Ehud Olmert’s office at the Kirya military compound in Tel Aviv.
This was the floor where Israel’s tough decisions were made. It was here, where the IDF plotted the surprise attack on the Syrian and Egyptian air forces as the opening to the Six Day War and where the military brass convened on the holy day of Yom Kippur in 1973 after the country came under surprise attack on both its southern and northern fronts.
This night though, the cabinet had convened to decide how to respond to Hezbollah’s latest act of aggression.
Livni was not alone in questioning the IDF’s proposed retaliation. Shimon Peres, then the deputy prime minister, asked what Hezbollah’s response would be to the planned IDF attack and how the IDF would then retaliate.
Halutz reportedly ignored Livni’s question and refrained from giving Peres a straight answer. “There is no victory here. There is no such thing as a knock-out,” Halutz later said.
The rest is history. Israel retaliated forcefully against Hezbollah. At first it launched an operation known as the “Night of the Fajrs,” during which the air force bombed 90 homes scattered throughout southern Lebanon where Hezbollah was believed to be storing its long-range Fajr missiles. A few days later, the IAF bombed the Dahiyah, Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut. In response, Hezbollah fired rockets into Haifa. War had erupted.
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Livni though didn’t like the direction things were heading. She felt, correctly so, that Israel did not have a clear exit plan on the shelf for how to end the war.
That’s why, on July 13, a mere day after the fighting began, she had her staff write up how they would like a draft United Nations Security Council resolution to look if one were to be passed to end the conflict that had just erupted.
Others felt, like Livni, that Israel lacked a clear strategy. Condoleezza Rice, then the US secretary of state, described her feeling throughout the war as like being in the movie Groundhog Day.
“The problem was that the Israelis didn’t really have a firm grasp on their strategic objectives,” Rice recalled in her 2011 memoir, No Higher Honor. “They kept saying that they wanted to damage Hezbollah, but they understood that they wouldn’t succeed in destroying the terrorist organization. They wanted to punish Hezbollah, but they admitted that they were doing more damage to Lebanon – and potential friends – than to the terrorists…Since they didn’t know what they were trying to achieve, they didn’t know when they’d achieve it.”
At first, Olmert didn’t want to hear about Livni’s war-ending resolution.
The military campaign seemed to be going well and the world support for Israel's anti-Hezbollah operation was holding up nicely. That would change at the end of July with the accidental bombing of a building in the southern Lebanese town of Kafr Kana which killed 28 civilians. From then, the pressure was on Israel to end the war. The question was how.
The war ultimately ended on August 14 with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The resolution saw the deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces in southern Lebanon for the first time in decades as well as the beefing up of UNIFIL from a small force based on soldiers mostly from the Third World, to a force of 12,000 soldiers from across Europe.
I went to see Livni this week ahead of Sunday, which will mark the 10-year anniversary to the day the cease-fire went into effect. We met in Tel Aviv at the headquarters of Hatnua, the party she established and merged with the Labor Party ahead of the last elections.
Her office is decorated with a few Menashe Kadishman prints and a largerthan- life painting of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the revisionist leader whose ideology she was raised on by parents who fought in the anti-British Etzel underground.
Livni might seem like a strange choice to consult on issues of warfare. But if you want to learn about ending wars, very few people in Israel or around the world have the experience that she does.
In 2006, as foreign minister, Livni led Israel’s diplomatic efforts that culminated in 1701. In 2009, again as foreign minister, Livni was the architect of the memorandum of understanding that Israel signed with the United States that put an end to Operation Cast Lead and three weeks of fighting in the Gaza Strip. In 2014, she was again in the cabinet during Operation Protective Edge and pushed hard throughout the 50 days of fighting to end the war in a Security Council decision, a proposal Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected.
Livni’s primary message is that Israel needs to have diplomatic endings to its future wars prepared – as much as possible – before the wars even erupt.
This might seem trivial but it is far from being so, especially in a country like Israel, which as in the case of the last Gaza war, often finds itself pushed into conflicts it would rather avoid.
“If there is no end strategy thought out ahead of time, the diplomatic effort will lag behind the military campaign,” she explained.
Israel and the world, Livni said, have to yet to completely internalize that wars today are not like they were in 1967 or 1973. There is no decisive victory.
There is no enemy fighter who exits a bunker waving a white flag signifying the end of fighting.
"We got used to the victory album from the Six Day War," Livni told me.
"But that doesn’t exist anymore." The first step in knowing how to end a modern war, she said, is by understanding what you will need before the fighting even begins. Just like soldiers train for the urban and guerrilla threats they will encounter on the streets of Gaza City and in the villages scattered throughout southern Lebanon, so too governments need to plan the ending ahead of time.
Her staff, for example, was able to draft a resolution on the second day of the 2006 war that ended up almost the same as 1701, because Livni already had an idea what Israel would need for the war to end. In 2005, she attended a meeting with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. The topic was Ghajar, an Alawite village split down the middle by the Israeli-Lebanese border and whose residents live half in Israel and half in Lebanon.
At one point, Sharon pounded his fist on the table. "Why can't we just get the Lebanese Armed Forces to come down to the border and fill the holes in the fence," he asked the participants, a mix of ministers and IDF officers. That is exactly what 1701 ended up doing.
To end wars to Israel’s advantage, Livni explained, the government first needs to make sure it has the United States on its side. Second, it should do whatever it can before hostilities erupt, to unite the Arab world against Hamas and Hezbollah and lastly, it should use the military campaign as a way to leverage more diplomatic gain out of the world.
“My parents fought against the British at a time when there was a parallel international effort under way with the British to create a Jewish state,” she said. “The military and diplomatic campaigns need to go hand-in-hand with one another.”
As a country, Israel is known for its many achievements. The innovation, culture and military technology found here are just some of the state’s amazing feats. Long-term planning? Strategic thinking? Not Israel’s strong side.
Just two days after I met with Livni, former national security adviser Uzi Arad briefed the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and lamented Israel’s failure to plan for the future.
“We don’t know the methods [for national planning], and we aren’t learning them,” Arad said. “Our universities lag behind in imparting these skills.
Compared to other advanced countries, Israel is completely weak in this area.”
At a time when another war in Gaza could erupt without warning, and as Hezbollah continues to amass an unprecedented missile arsenal that could paralyze the country, we should listen to what Livni has to say. Ending wars is just as important as fighting them. Now, during times of quiet, the country has the opportunity to prepare for the noise that unfortunately will likely return.
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