Diplomacy: Paper tiger?

The prime minister's wartime decision-making process is under attack.

Olmert cabinet 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert cabinet 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Something about the drama emanating from the Prime Minister's Office Wednesday afternoon, when the security cabinet debated sending ground troops north to the Litani River, didn't seem quite right. Here we were, fully four weeks after the start of the war against the Hizbullah, following an initial period of unprecedented domestic support and a long diplomatic rope the US gave Israel to deliver the Hizbullah a stinging stripe, and only now was the security cabinet dealing with Defense Ministry and IDF plans to take the ground operation to the Litani River and beyond. The drama seemed somewhat artificial, misplaced, more the product of a flawed decision-making apparatus than any critical resolution that needed to be reached precisely at that time. Everyone, but everyone, knew that the 12-person security cabinet would ultimately approve the plans. For 28 days, according to former National Security Council head Maj.-Gen. (res) Giora Eiland, the army was operating against secondary targets - in Beirut and just north of the border - when the bulk of the Katyusha launchers that were raining havoc on the North were positioned south of the Litani, well beyond where the IDF had already reached. The army obviously also realized this, and indeed, two weeks ago, when it first discussed widening the ground operation - after realizing air power alone was not going to do the job - the security cabinet brought two proposals for a wider operation to the government. The first proposal was more modest - clearing out an area six to eight kilometers from the border (itself no cake walk). The second alternative was for an operation to the Litani. Both Olmert and Peretz favored the first, and it was accepted. Only National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) and Pensioner Minister Rafi Eitan (Gil) supported the wider operation. But as the rockets continued to fall, Peretz gave instructions to the IDF senior staff last Thursday night to prepare plans for a Litani operation - and it's reasonable to assume these plans had been readied long in advance and sitting in someone's drawer (if not, then why not?) By Monday morning, following the attack on Kfar Giladi that killed 12 reservists, and the rocket barrage on Haifa that killed three civilians, Peretz threatened to launch the wider operation if the diplomatic process leading to a UN Security Council cease-fire did not bear any fruit. WHICH RAISES the following questions: Why, if the Litani idea was first raised two weeks ago, and Peretz told the army to prepare for it last Thursday, did it take an additional six days for the proper forum to be convened and the decision formally made? Why wait? Especially if the security cabinet decision that was passed contained a clause giving Olmert and Peretz authority to determine - obviously with an eye on how the diplomatic situation was shaping up - when to actually start the operation. Indeed, when the guns fall silent, and the country begins seriously taking stock of the management of the war and the decision-making process, how and when the decision to expand the operation to the Litani was made, and how it was acted upon, will surely be brought under close scrutiny. Indeed, one of the criticisms that so angered Peretz inside Wednesday's security cabinet meeting was when his predecessor, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, asked why a plan to go to the Litani was not presented during the first days of the war. Inside the Prime Minister's Office, a feeble reason for delaying the security cabinet meeting until Wednesday was proffered: It takes time to draw up plans. Outside the loop, however, there was simply bewilderment. "I don't know," Eiland replied when asked why the government waited so long to approve a wider operation. And then Eiland, a sharp critic of how key decisions are made at the government's top levels, added an observation that called into question the whole decision-making process. "The wrong way to solve problems or to manage conflicts in the 21st century is to say, 'OK, we are the political echelon, and we will wait to see whether the army has new proposals and plans that they want us to approve. We are waiting until they come to present them to us.'" And, indeed, that is what seemed to have happened. Olmert, at a press conference Monday following a meeting with President Moshe Katsav, was asked about criticism leveled by OC Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam to the effect that the political echelon was holding the military back. (Adam was effectively sidelined later that day.) Olmert's reply was telling, and seemed a perfect illustration of exactly what Eiland was talking about. "Regarding the military operation, up until yesterday morning (Sunday), no operative plan was brought to me to widen the picture beyond the lines where the IDF is today," Olmert said, his words coming across as a bit defensive. "I have heard all kinds of things, and read all types of articles in the press: I repeat my statement, I met yesterday, together with the defense minister, with the northern commander and with all the top army officers, and told them what I am telling you now. There has not been one case along the way that a proposal for military operations was brought for our approval and was not approved. Yesterday was the first time, I stress the first time, that a proposal was brought to us to deviate from the lines beyond where the army is today. I approved bringing that proposal to the security cabinet, and the security cabinet will deal with it tomorrow. We will deal with it and at the end of the day there will be a decision." According to Eiland, this model of decision-making - of sitting back and waiting for the IDF to come with proposals and suggestions - is fundamentally flawed. "This is not the way to do things," he said, adding that the military and political echelons needed to work closely together, not one waiting for the other to provide a proposal or solution. Eiland, who has had a ring-side seat and provided policy options to the country's top decision-makers for years, said that 90 percent of the problems they face are neither purely military nor purely political. "Everything has a direct influence on everything else," he said. "Every political problem has a military dimension, and vice versa." In a thinly veiled criticism of the current decision-making process, Eiland said, "the real group of the right people need to meet every day to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the situation." What should not be done, he said, was for the cabinet to wait until the army felt the time had come to present something. "That is not the way things should operate," he said. Yet, by Olmert's own admission, that is exactly how they are operating - which may be one of the factors explaining why matters look as inconclusive today as they do.