Editor's Notes: Accepting his share of the blame

Halutz's resignation is no cause for celebration. But his departure was inevitable and appropriate, given the extent to which he misread the big picture.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
From his vantage point high in the Kirya military complex, Dan Halutz would look out over vibrant, bustling Tel Aviv and marvel patriotically to visiting journalists about the growth of the city. Then he'd put out his cigarette, settle himself behind his desk and, until the last year or so, assert that Tel Aviv's vitality mirrored that of a country that had never enjoyed a better geostrategic position and never been further from conventional war. Israel's air force is a perhaps unparalleled meritocracy. Only the smartest, most resilient, dependable and resourceful of youngsters get to stand on its lowest rungs. Only the finest among this elite make their way to the very top of the ladder. And from that esteemed position of air force commander, Halutz achieved the unprecedented feat of moving over to command all of Israel's armed forces. His resignation is no cause for celebration. But his departure was inevitable and appropriate, nonetheless, given the extent to which he misread the big picture and given the consequent mismanagement of last summer's war against Hizbullah. Not all of the responsibility for the catastrophic combination of heightened expectation and mediocre results falls squarely on Halutz's shoulders, of course. The terrible price in lost lives, the inability to defang Hizbullah, and the exacerbated sense of Israeli vulnerability created by a 33-day failure to answer incessant short-range rocket fire mean there is a lot of blame to go around. And some of it derives from misguided prioritizing dating back long before the life span of the current military and political leadership. But Halutz has now accepted his weighty share, and rightly so. The bitter irony of the IDF's so tangible failure this summer to "break Hizbullah" - as Defense Minister Amir Peretz had publicly promised would be achieved within a week - is the degree to which it has obscured the army's true capabilities. Few military analysts doubt the fighting abilities of the IDF's ground forces; unfortunately, however, the stewardship of the war meant that these abilities were not effectively demonstrated. And no military expert questions the IDF's extraordinary qualitative edge over even the finest of this region's armed forces, much less Hizbullah. The IDF's offensive and defensive potential, in the most sophisticated of contexts, reflect the dazzling innovative skills of Israel's domestic brain power. Unfortunately, again, while investing in and focusing on qualitative strides forward, the highest echelons had dismissed the damage-creating potential of far more primitive weaponry, in this case Hizbullah rockets. The finest Israeli thinkers have long been working on ways and means to intercept the most sophisticated of missiles, carrying the most dangerous of payloads. But even though everybody, but everybody, who needed to, knew full well that Hizbullah had accumulated rudimentary, unguided, low-payload Katyushas by the thousands, nobody had made an urgent priority of thwarting them. And here Halutz, with his insistence on avoiding a major ground offensive last summer even as the Katyusha rain intensified and Hizbullah refused to wilt under his air assault, was a prime offender, and one who was allowed excessive leeway by an inexpert political leadership. Now, of course, work is speeding ahead to find a defensive response to Hizbullah's Katyushas, and to the Palestinians' Kassams. Within a year or two, it is said, this Israeli vulnerability will have been removed. By then, though, new points of potential weakness will doubtless have been found by Israel's enemies. So any sense that Israel can afford to relax once it has the tools to more effectively fight the last war again must be resisted. It is often pointed out, for instance, that the Syrians watched and learned from the success of Hizbullah's asymmetric warfare, and may be tempted, under certain circumstances, to try and replicate it. But as well as rudimentary rockets, Damascus has highly sophisticated missile capabilities. Where Saddam Hussein fired adapted Scuds at Israel in the Gulf War, sacrificing warhead size to enable his modified missiles to get here at all, the Syrians have true Scuds, ready to fire from much shorter distances, with much larger warheads. Where Hizbullah had its non-navigable, fire-and-hope Katyushas, Syria has missiles with pinpoint accuracy and potent effect. An obvious lesson from the war that should never have required relearning is that the IDF needs what it has always needed: the fullest possible range of capabilities to meet the widest array of threats. ANOTHER LESSON that should never have needed relearning is that Israel can afford to have nothing less than the most qualified and capable of personnel in its key security establishment positions. Many would argue that, given the relentless security challenges faced by Israel, it needs former military generals in key positions of political power, too. However, not all generals prove to be effective political leaders in times of military crisis or during relatively peaceful interludes, and not a few nonmilitary leaders here have demonstrated extraordinary acumen in overseeing the defense establishment. What is unarguable, though, is that our political leaders must acknowledge and internalize their limitations, ask the necessary searching questions when making vital decisions, and be free to focus all of their energies on their leadership responsibilities. Last summer, as some of the numerous committees of inquiry have confirmed, too few of the necessary questions were asked of the IDF's top brass at the ministerial level. Indeed, it is far from clear that the adequate forums even existed in which a thorough discussion of options could be held between the senior political and military hierarchies. If Halutz erroneously minimized the Katyusha threat and relied exaggeratedly on air power, Israel, to its cost, evidently lacked a defense minister with the expertise to recognize that there might be a problem or the determined curiosity that might have exposed it. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in the run-up to the general elections, Peretz, hoping to become prime minister, was adamant that he would run the country as a social general, and would firmly delegate security responsibilities to cabinet colleagues with the requisite experience and to his military chiefs. That the Defense Ministry portfolio was the most prestigious of the coalition posts made available to him after the election results were tallied did not mean that Peretz had to take it. Compounding matters for him now is that, to try and survive as Labor leader, he must spend much of his time in the coming weeks gearing up for his party primary. Israel, in other words, will have a less than full-time defense minister even as it grapples with Iran's determined push toward a nuclear capability - a challenge, incidentally, for which the experience and know-how of ex-air commander Halutz would have been invaluable. If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert becomes deeply embroiled in grueling corruption investigations, that too would necessitate a diminished focus that Israel can ill afford. An orderly transition of authority in the IDF from Halutz to a qualified successor will be regarded by many Israelis as a sign of the military house being put in order. Hizbullah is already gleefully depicting Halutz's departure, by contrast, as proof of Israeli incompetence. The war and its aftermath, indeed, are being energetically portrayed by Israel's enemies as evidence of immense weakness. All the more need, therefore, to ensure that such "misconceptions" of our vulnerability are indeed misconceptions, and that if the need arises, Israel is not only fully capable, but also effectively marshalled, to punish them.