Behind the Lines: Sometimes we get it right

We all asked ourselves if and how we should report that the IDF was just not winning.

media army 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
media army 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Trust Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah to latch on to one of the most significant sections of the Winograd Report in his appearance on Wednesday in Beirut. For some reason, the one he chose was largely overlooked by the great majority of politicians and journalists, even though it contained one of the most important conclusions on those traumatic 33 days last summer. "For the first time," it says, "a war in which Israel was involved ended without a clear military victory for Israel... a semi-military organization with a few thousand fighters managed to stand for weeks against the most powerful army in the Middle East. It's hard to exaggerate the repercussions of this result, in our own eyes and in the eyes of our enemies, neighbors and friends in region and around the world." There is still a considerable body of opinion here and abroad which is convinced that despite its failings, Israel was still the final victor of the Second Lebanon War. But the official verdict is now out: The five Winograd Committee members, including two former IDF generals, have ruled that even if we didn't actually lose the war outright, this was the furthest we ever were from winning. But is this the last word? Obviously, politicians, analysts and finally historians will continue arguing for decades over whether we won or lost, just as now, 40 years after what was universally regarded as an incredible feat of arms, there are those who say that the Six Day War was no more than a Pyrrhic victory. Even Nasrallah, in an interview he gave shortly after the war, appeared much more reluctant to claim success, saying that if he had known Israel would respond in such a way, he would never have attacked. But the public perception of the Second Lebanon War as a dismal failure took root long before the committee delivered its report. Indeed, the government would never have been forced to set up the committee if it hadn't been so clear that things had gone so badly wrong. On Monday, a few hours before the report was released, I was sitting with a couple of researchers at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "The real report has already come out," said one of them, "in all the work the journalists have been doing since the war, especially in the latest book." He was referring to Captives of Lebanon, by Ofer Shelah and Yoav Limor, published last month in Hebrew by Yediot Aharonot Books. He had a good point, for anyone who closely followed the local media over the last nine months, reading the hundreds of reports and two books (so far) that revealed the convoluted decision-making process and dysfunction of the national chain of command throughout the war, the Winograd Report revealed little. It served mainly to put an official seal on what we already knew. AT WHAT stage did the media acknowledge defeat? Reading those sentences in the report, I was taken back to the discussions and e-mail exchanges I had with both Israeli and foreign colleagues weeks before the cease-fire. We were all asking ourselves and each other the same basic question: If and how we should be reporting what was becoming abundantly clear to all of us who were covering the war from the front - that the IDF was just not winning. It wasn't simply a matter of telling the story the way we saw it. Every Israeli covering this war felt a deep responsibility; we all had friends and family both fighting in Lebanon and under fire up North, and we knew the effect our reporting could have on them and their loved ones. At a family meal, one weekend during the war, a bitter argument broke out over whether the media's criticism had any validity or whether "the government knows what its doing." The truth is that despite accusations of a "defeatist" press, I think that all Israeli reporters were toning down their coverage of the war to some degree. I know I was. It's not that I was hiding any important detail, more a matter of style than substance. I just tried not to let too much of my sinking feeling seep into my reports. In effect, there were only a few instances of Israeli journalists' actually coming out and saying we're losing the war. Even in the first weeks following the cease-fire, it was only gradually admitted, at first by a few iconoclasts in the media, along with one or two maverick officers and gradually also opposition politicians. With hindsight and after having our original feelings vindicated by Winograd, should we have acted differently? I still don't think so. For a start, during the fighting no reporter had the full picture of what was going on, either on the battlefield or behind closed doors in the cabinet and the General Staff. We had many indications, but that still wouldn't have been enough to draw drastic conclusions. Then, there is the question what good would it have done if we had broadcast the full extent of our fears. After reading the entire report, I don't believe that any of the multiple failings it brings to light could have been fixed at the height of battle, even if they had been accurately pinpointed by the media in real time. Which leaves us with the effect such reports could have had on the wider public. When a society is at war, there is an extremely fine line between describing matters as they are and actively demoralizing the nation. As it was, things were bad enough, and I don't think the Israeli media should be blamed for not passing judgment during the war. In fact, there were many who leveled the opposite accusation, blaming the press for being too critical. I hope those who are always quick to attack journalists will take the time to read the Winograd Report and perhaps admit that sometimes we get things right.