Editor's Notes: A searing indictment

A non-ideological critique, Winograd exposes incompetence at the highest level of the system.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
For page after relentless page it continues, exposing, layer after horrifying layer, a picture of Israel's military and political capabilities so dismal, so complacent and amateurish, as to defy belief. "It can't really be this bad, can it?" you find yourself saying as you turn the pages. And then comes yet another clause, highlighting yet another untenable reality, to confirm that, yes, it really can be. And this, remember, is only the interim report of the Winograd Committee into the failings related to the Second Lebanon War. This is the critique of that part of the war that was widely supported by the public. Having had six years to prepare, Israelis had reasonably assumed the IDF was ready and waiting with an effective response to Hizbullah. Chillingly and caustically, Winograd divests us of that misguided confidence, and heaps mountains of blame on those who left us so vulnerable. The final report, cataloguing the stubborn maintenance of the failed hit-and-hope response even as 4,000 Katyushas fell and 163 Israelis were killed, awaits us in the summer. The conclusions relating to the three key personalities centrally blamed for the failings have, naturally, made all the headlines since Eliahu Winograd delivered his earthquake on Monday afternoon. Unthinkably, to date, those unredeemingly damning conclusions have not begun to remake Israel's political landscape in the way the authors plainly believe is vital and urgent. But beyond the personal, what has been stressed repeatedly in these and other columns of The Jerusalem Post in the months since this acutely mishandled war was brought to its woefully unsatisfactory end is desperately reinforced by the Winograd panel investigation: The belief that changing a few faces at the top of our political and military guard will be enough to solve our problems is suicidally delusional for the state of Israel. Winograd's central concern in this interim installment is not that Israel was waging an unjust, inappropriate or disproportionate war, as some critics have misrepresented it as asserting. Nor is its main focus the sad fact that most concerns the public - that, by the end of the fighting, decisive victory had not been achieved. This summation doubtless awaits in all its grisly detail in the final report. What the commission emphasizes so starkly here is: 1) that Israel simply couldn't go to war last summer in an instant response to the July 12 border incursion, the kidnappings and the killings (lest we forget, three soldiers were killed in that initial Hizbullah attack). Why not? Because the IDF was not capable of grappling adequately with Hizbullah. And 2) that even the most cursory examination of the IDF's state of non-preparedness by the political leadership would have immediately exposed this dire state of affairs - except that, astoundingly, the political leadership didn't take the trouble to check. The individual politicians' culpability has been thoroughly documented in the past few days, and none more so than that of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Paraphrasing Winograd, he made up his mind hastily, didn't explore alternatives and didn't consult. He's heavily to blame for the unclear goals of the military response, and "made a personal contribution to the fact that the declared goals were over-ambitious and not feasible." He didn't adapt those plans when it became clear they weren't working. All in all, he was guilty of "a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence." Criticism of a national leader doesn't get much more brutal than that. As for the defense minister, he didn't have the necessary experience, and didn't understand "the basic principles of using military force to achieve political goals"! Yet he didn't systematically consult with those who knew more. He didn't so much as "ask for the IDF's operational plans" for the military response he was ostensibly overseeing. In fact, his presence, in the words of the panel, "impaired" Israel's ability to respond well to its challenges. The man responsible for the security establishment entrusted with our protection actually made matters worse. As for the chief of General Staff at the time, how wise he was to have resigned ahead of this bombshell. The portrait that emerges from these dense lines of excoriation is of insistent complacency as the drums of a war Israel was in no position to effectively fight beat ever louder. The message Dan Halutz was giving the inexperienced duo at the political helm was that everything was fine. He had it all in hand. As if. What has been less strenuously documented, however, is the wider appalling picture set out in Winograd - the extent of military unreadiness, of misassessment, of absent political-military coordination, all of which must be remedied if we are not to face more and much greater tragedy in subsequent encounters with our enemies. IN ITS sections on the six years preceding the conflict, the commission tracks a process in which the IDF concedes sovereignty at the Lebanon border to Hizbullah. Nothing less. An abandonment of the elementary protection of northern Israel in the face of an extremist guerrilla army utterly committed to the defeat of Israel. The policies of containment and restraint followed by every government since 2000 "essentially enabled Hizbullah to strengthen militarily, without any significant disturbance by Israel." Hizbullah amassed its arsenal of missiles and rockets. It deployed along the border. And it gradually created a situation where it was able "to act when and how it wished, without any military response from Israel." We all knew much of this, of course. But the accumulation as presented in Winograd is shocking nonetheless. There is the documentation of prime minister Ariel Sharon's declared overview that whatever didn't absolutely have to be done, simply must not be done in southern Lebanon - an insistence on restraint borne of the trauma of past Lebanon misadventure and the hope that the unfolding political process in Lebanon would ultimately benefit Israel. There is the detailing of border incidents in which the IDF was consequently refused permission to tackle overt terrorist threats, like the case in November 2005 "when the then-OC Northern Command approved the opening of fire to destroy a terror cell that had emplaced itself along the border." The chief of General Staff overruled him emphatically. And so it came to pass that the IDF's basic obligation to defend the North was blurred and eroded, and a rapacious enemy, never confronted, became ever-more emboldened and ever-more capable. Since its soldiers weren't being allowed to fire back, and their deterrent capability was necessarily disappearing, the IDF protected them by pulling away physically from the commanding position it had been expected to maintain at the border after May 2000's unilateral withdrawal. It tried to protect its silenced soldiers, relocating their bases and lookout points to less exposed positions even as Hizbullah dug in at the fence. One of these abandoned lookout positions, the report documents, had overseen the very scene of the July 12 incursion and kidnapping that sparked the war. This kidnapping, in that context, was a disaster utterly waiting to happen, and the Winograd Report in these sections is nothing but a chronicle of a tragedy foretold. The IDF positively knew that a kidnapping was being planned. Every alarm bell should have been ringing in the period immediately before that defining event. But many of the warning systems had, literally or figuratively, long since been disconnected. And those who did try to stress the unmistakable imminent dangers were often ignored. On the night of July 11, Winograd reports, there was clear evidence of Hizbullah activity at the border fence itself in what would next day be the kidnap zone. "Despite this, the orders were given to return to routine procedures." The commander of the patrol that had been out immediately before that of Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and their colleagues reported back to Goldwasser himself, on the morning of July 12, that the situation was combustible. You can almost hear the fear in his voice rising from the letters on the page. "We've had a really terrifying night," Winograd quotes him as telling the soon-to-be abducted Goldwasser. "And from what I can tell, there must have been 20 Hizbullah men who came across." Even these documented Hizbullah activities at the border fence, Winograd reports, "did not prompt any suspicions or warnings about what was about to ensue." And when Goldwasser's patrol, oh so inevitably, was indeed attacked, it caught the IDF hopelessly off-guard. The gradual escalation of Hizbullah action had been registered, but no effective procedures had been drawn up to respond. "THE IDF was not ready for this war," Winograd states - a simple sentence of devastating implication. What that sentence meant in practice was that the IDF had not drawn up the necessary contingency plans for what to do when the day came, as it would surely come, that the policy of containment was no longer tenable. The army was massively undertrained, undrilled, inappropriately equipped. Budget cutbacks had necessitated some of the training reductions, but even a reduced cycle was not adhered to, with many reservists barely training at all between 2004 and 2006, and even standing army combat units underprepared, as the IDF concentrated on the daily challenge of protecting Israelis from Palestinian terrorism. The guiding assumption was that Israel would have plenty of time to prepare for a real war. But this was an assumption without basis, a case of the yihyeh beseder syndrome at a time when nothing could possibly be okay. As Winograd puts it in masterful understatement, "Given that the threat of kidnapping was real and ongoing, and Hizbullah had plainly been planning for a kidnapping for months, it would have been expected that the IDF would, as a priority, have prepared a detailed plan for dealing with the situation - a plan that would be updated, approved, drilled and adapted." And if there had been such a plan, the report goes on, it should have been presented to the political leaders when they met in the immediate wake of the kidnapping and initial Hizbullah bombardment. And all its alternatives, founding assumptions, pros and cons should have served as the basis for a serious debate as to how to respond. But - and here the extent of the leadership failure takes on quite dizzying proportions - no such plan was presented. Because there was no such plan. Old plans were being superseded and revised, and while there was still an operational plan of sorts for confronting Hizbullah, Winograd reports, it hadn't been formally approved by the General Staff, and therefore had not come to serve as the agreed basis for preparing the military apparatus. It gets worse. Even that plan, however, that undrilled, unapproved plan, did not include provisions for a ground offensive, even though it was known that such an offensive would be the only way to stop the Katyusha rockets that Hizbullah would inevitably fire into northern Israel if attacked. This was a consequence of the apparent "recoiling" from the idea of a ground offensive in Halutz's IDF. Of course, this in turn meant that such plans as did exist for an air offensive were "immensely problematic," since they didn't deal with the Katyusha threat. Again, it gets worse. In its hubris and rank incompetence, the political echelon barely felt the absence of such fundamental planning anyway - because it didn't bother to ask the basic questions about the nonexistent plan. The degree to which the political echelon sat, paralyzed, in thrall to the IDF and its chief of General Staff is unthinkable. And yet that was the case. As Winograd sums it up, the prime minister went to war "despite the fact that no military plan was submitted and without asking for one." His defense minister was no better. And his government, in turn "authorized an immediate military strike that was not thought through." The "thought through" formulation is actually generous. "Thought" would be more accurate. AND SO, fatefully, Israel set out on a military operation that became a war without a concrete assessment of what its goals were and how they could be achieved, aware that this operation would expose the civilians of the North to incessant rocket attack for which it had no defensive answer and no offensive plan, against an enemy that had clearheadedly probed Israel's strengths and worked out how to exploit its weaknesses. There was no serious debate. No exploring of options. In fact, says Winograd, some of the decision-makers around the cabinet table did not even seem to recognize that it was their responsibility to look into such fundamentals. The leadership acted, says Winograd, on the basis not of demonstrable facts and well-founded assessments, but on the basis of mere "ideas." "The desire to hit back right away and harshly in response to an event like the July 12 abductions was natural," the committee allows. "The sense that the absence of such a response would have far-reaching negative implications was legitimate and reasonable." But where, it cries out over its 169 pages, where was the preparation? Where was the assessment of what, precisely, the IDF was capable of doing? Where was the judgment of what could be achieved, the likely consequences? Where was the common sense? More worrying yet: In the last few days, the very same malaise is repeating itself. The same ministers who blindly and unquestioningly backed their most senior members are doing it again - politics and manipulation as usual, in the immediate aftermath of a report that screams "Emergency." The arms are flowing into Gaza, the Syrians are acquiring new weapons systems, the Iranians are speeding towards a nuclear weapon. Every indication is that the same poor governance that left Israel unprepared to fight Hizbullah is being perpetuated in all these areas too. Yet even the foreign minister, who does not emerge badly from this inquiry and who easily understood that the report necessitates an orderly transfer of power into wiser and more capable hands, complacently tells the prime minister that he ought to resign but that, since he's not going to, she'll go on working with him anyway. THE DECISION to invade Lebanon in 1982 was triggered by the assassination attempt on Israel's ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov. But the planning for that war had been going on for 18 months. It would be easy to snipe that the planning for the Second Lebanon War didn't last 18 hours. Easy but wrong. There was no planning for this war. It was a war of hit back and hope. It had support from a public that had no idea of how appallingly unready its army was for any such conflict. It had support from a public that reasonably expected better from its military and political leaders. And as what was initially (mis)conceived as an overnight operation progressed into days and weeks, the ineptitude was compounded with ever-more fatal consequences. The tactics were doggedly maintained even as the Katyushas fell in their thousands and the death toll mounted, until 163 Israelis were dead: 44 civilians and 119 soldiers, 33 of whom died in the abortive ground offensive on the last two days of the war. The failures catalogued so starkly here are no orphans. They have parents in the ranks of chiefs of General Staffs and generals and prime ministers and ministers stretching through the entire period chronicled and beyond. Some of these parents still nurse political ambitions. They should be disabused. That any of those indicted here - and that's what Winograd is, a searing indictment of fundamental incompetence at the top - have dared to try to cling on to office in the wake of its publication is beyond unworthy. Israel grapples with fleeting opportunities and faces innumerable dangers. It requires leadership with the expertise and knowledge to deal with both challenges effectively, and the humility to seek to supplement that expertise and knowledge. It needs an army that can defend its borders and the citizens within. Central to our very existence here is the imperative that Israel, under its new chief of General Staff and more capable leaders, overhaul the way it governs and defends itself. That is the urgent message at the boiling heart of the Winograd Report.