olmert cabinet 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
This is galling to have to admit. But with the war officially over, it is retroactively clear that the Europeans were right about one thing. They were right for all the wrong reasons, but they were right nevertheless: Israel's response was disproportionate.
This is not, as some claimed, because Israel had no right to go to war. Hizbullah is openly committed to Israel's destruction. It spent the last six years, as organization leader Hassan Nasrallah told a press conference on July 12, arming itself to the teeth for the sole purpose of fighting Israel. And it did so despite Israel's UN-certified withdrawal from every inch of Lebanese territory in 2000. Under these circumstances, there is no way to interpret Hizbullah's deadly cross-border raid on July 12 except as an act of war. And Israel had every right to respond by trying to eradicate this deadly threat now, rather than waiting until Hizbullah was even more entrenched, better armed and harder to defeat.
Nor, as others claimed, is it because any act that Israel committed - or even all of them put together - was unjustified. All were legitimate military actions that any army would deem essential in wartime. Aerial and naval blockades, for instance, are standard military practice, aimed at disrupting the enemy's arms supply. So is bombing the enemy's command headquarters, as Israel did with Hizbullah's headquarters in Beirut's Dahiya quarter. So is bombing individual trucks thought to be carrying weapons - even if civilian trucks are sometimes mistakenly hit instead. And so is trying to bomb the launchers that daily fired hundreds of rockets at Israel - even if, again, some bombs accidentally hit civilian targets instead.
However, all these acts are legitimate only in service of a legitimate military aim. And it turns out that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert never had any military aims - or, more accurately, he never had any intention of doing what was necessary to achieve them.
NO SANE person, for instance, would say that stopping deadly rocket fire on civilian population centers is an illegitimate military goal. And early on, it became clear that aerial bombardment alone could not achieve this, as Olmert and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz had foolishly hoped. From that point, military planners were unanimous about what was needed: a major ground operation to push Hizbullah's short-range rockets out of range of Israel (according to the army, long-range rockets actually can be dealt with largely from the air). Scarcely a day passed without some senior officer explaining this to the press; not one ever proposed an alternative solution.
YET OLMERT refused to order such an operation. Instead, he approved only small-scale operations near the border - which, incidentally, increased Israel's casualties by effectively negating the IDF's numerical advantage over Hizbullah. Thus we witnessed the incredible sight of Defense Minister Amir Peretz telling the Knesset on August 7 - 26 days after the war began - that "if, within the coming days, the diplomatic process does not reach a conclusion, Israeli forces will carry out the operations necessary to take control of Katyusha rocket launching sites in every location."
In other words, Peretz openly admitted that until then, Israel had not been doing what was needed to achieve this. So what exactly were its military operations meant to achieve?
Similarly, no sane person would argue that hitting Hizbullah hard enough to ensure that it can no longer threaten Israel is an illegitimate military aim - particularly as there was virtually unanimous recognition, both in Israel and abroad, that neither the Lebanese Army nor any international force would be willing to undertake this task. And here, too, once the initial fighting had amply disproved Halutz's fantasy that this was doable by air power alone, military planners were unanimous: Israeli troops had to advance to the Litani River, seal off south Lebanon and begin a slow search-and-destroy mission of the area in order to eliminate Hizbullah's bunkers, arms caches, communications centers and fighting force.
However, Olmert refused to order such an operation - until, bizarrely, this past Friday, when the UN Security Council was already finalizing the cease-fire that took effect Monday morning. By that time, the move had no chance of success: Military planners said it would take at least three days to reach the Litani and two weeks to conduct the search-and-destroy mission, and the course of the fighting until then indicated that both figures were likely to prove underestimates. And indeed, few units managed to reach the Litani before the cease-fire, while the army had no time at all for search-and-destroy missions.
SO WHAT exactly were the military goals that justified all the death and destruction on both sides? Granted, one goal was ostensibly achieved: an agreement to deploy the Lebanese Army and a beefed-up international force in south Lebanon. However, that was supposed to happen after Israel had sufficiently degraded Hizbullah's capabilities to enable these forces to assume control. Instead, Hizbullah's capabilities are still largely intact - and since, as noted above, everyone admits that these forces are neither willing nor able to disarm Hizbullah themselves, it is hard to see how this constitutes an achievement. On the contrary: It will only make it harder for Israel to take military action when Hizbullah launches the inevitable next war.
And then there is what Olmert repeatedly termed the "strategic surprise" of the war: the Israeli public's willingness to absorb hundreds of rockets a day without folding. But to demonstrate Israel's ability to endure civilian casualties, it was not necessary to kill a single Lebanese, drop a single bomb or send a single soldier into Lebanon. For that, Ariel Sharon's famous comment that "restraint is strength" would have sufficed.
For a country that many still seek to erase from the map, war will unfortunately sometimes be necessary. This was one of those times, and Olmert's decision to go to war was in principle justified. But thanks to his refusal to actually fight the war once he declared it, 159 Israelis and hundreds of Lebanese ended up dying for nothing. And that is unforgivable.