Analysis: Time for a ground offensive?

For years, Israel has made do with artillery fire and airborne firepower.

IAF/IDF 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
IAF/IDF 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In the summer of 1993, a joint force of Battalion 13 on Ahzarit armored fighting vehicles from the Golani Brigade together with Merkava tanks of the Barak Brigade spent three intensive weeks preparing for a widespread operation in southern Lebanon. The IDF was carrying out Operation Accountability, a widespread offensive of artillery and airborne bombardment of Hizbullah bases. The second stage was going to be a major incursion by ground forces, outside the security zone, into the thin strip of southern Lebanon occupied by Israel between the pullback from most of Lebanon in 1985 and the final departure in 2000. The objective of the mission was to do what airplanes and long-range shelling couldn't do and totally wipe out the main Hizbullah training bases in towns like Jibshit. In the end, to the disappointment of the highly motivated troops, then-prime minister and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin decided not to activate the ground forces and the operation was stood down. The fear of high casualties and the desire not to escalate the Lebanese situation out of control led Rabin to the decision. That has been Israel's prevailing strategy over the last two decades - to make do with long-range artillery fire and airborne firepower and not commit large ground forces outside Israel's regular defense borders, which included the security zone up to 2000 and the Gaza Strip until last year's disengagement. There were a number of considerations behind this strategy. The trauma of the "Lebanese mud" gripped Israel's politicians and generals for years after the 1982 Operation Peace in Galilee, which brought home the limits of Israel's power, was the first war to be deeply disputed by Israeli society and caused a deep reluctance to embark on larger military adventures. The intifadas in 1987 and 2000 tied down most of the regular army and any large-scale operations would have necessitated calling up large reserve forces and caused major damage to economy. There was also a realization that while air bombings might bring bearable international condemnation, it would be nothing in comparison to the diplomatic pressure Israel would have to withstand if it invaded an Arab country again. Another political consideration that was added over the last few years was the desire to deny Hizbullah of any excuse to act. Israel's withdrawal from the security zone seemed to end the Shi'ite movement's raison d'etre, and Shiekh Hassan Nasrallah has been trying desperately ever since to provoke a conflict that will enable him to avoid internal and international pressure to become just another Lebanese political party. Last but not least, attacks from the air have been almost risk-free. Since Ron Arad's Phantom jet went down over Lebanon in 1986, Israel has not lost an aircrew member in a bombing mission. Land operations, as we saw tragically Wednesday, are inherent with casualties. For all these reasons, Israel's reactions to Hizbullah provocations have always been relatively limited. In 2000, then-prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak refrained from launching a major ground operation when Hizbullah captured three soldiers in an attack similar to that on Wednesday. And in 1991, on a wider scale, Yitzhak Shamir's government also nixed plans to send an airborne division to capture the H2 and H3 areas in western Iraq, relying instead on US and allied air power to eliminate the Scud launchers firing at Israel. Over the last few years, the IDF's infantry units, with proud histories of cross-border operations up until the Eighties have been forced to concentrate solely on low intensity warfare against Palestinian terrorists. The only major ground offensive of recent years was Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 against terror bases in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, but even that was merely against enclaves within Israeli-controlled territory, not incursions deep into enemy territory. Long-term military planning has been in accordance with this policy. There has been less reliance on reserve forces and large ground units, including the planned decommission of brigades, a reduction in the number of tanks and increased spending on the IDF's "strategic arm," long-range bombers and submarines. Most reserve units haven't properly trained for over three years and many were not called up for any kind of duty since the beginning of 2005. Aside from a few longer-range operations, mainly by special forces, the role of IDF ground forces ever since the pullback to the security zone has essentially been a defensive one. Even over the last three weeks following Cpl. Gilad Shalit's capture by Hamas, most of the units massed around the Gaza Strip have only gone in relatively limited force, a few kilometers inwards, careful to avoid built-up areas, and then left after a few days. The prevailing strategy has remained and the IDF has yet to commit a major ground force to combat. All that might be changing now. Following Hizbullah's attack, Israel is facing two kidnapping situations and emboldened enemies on two fronts, while the situation in the West Bank, where the Paratroopers Brigade have been busy in a low-profile offensive for the last couple of months might also flare up. The IDF command is pushing for a major offensive on both fronts that will drastically "change the rules of play" and that will mean a widespread operation, including probably dozens of casualties, incurring the wrath of the international community and calling up thousands of reservists, a step that will have widespread implications on the army's long-term plans and the Israeli economy as a whole. Not to mention Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's realignment plan. Many in the government and the IDF believe that such a step is now unavoidable, and that Hamas and especially Hizbullah are long overdue a sharp and painful lesson. Israel has to urgently regain its deterrence that has been severely eroded by the pullbacks from Lebanon and Gaza. Air strikes coupled with rhetoric are no longer enough. Menahem Begin together with his defense minister Ariel Sharon was the last Israeli leader to send thousands of soldiers over Israel's border 24 years ago. The operation that was consensual on the outset turned into a bitter national dispute over the "war of choice," which landed Israel in the Lebanese quagmire. So far, the retaliation to the Hizbullah attack has been relatively limited on the ground. Special forces backed by a small number of tanks does not a second war with Lebanon make. It falls now to Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to decide whether Israel will retake the upper hand by acting forcefully and smashing Hizbullah with the IDF's full might. They are both fully aware that it's much easier to go into Lebanon than to leave and that they might be playing into Nasrallah's hands. Either way it's an almost impossible choice. •