In defense of Ehud Olmert

What his government did right during the Lebanon War.

olmert 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Even in the best of times it's never fashionable to defend a sitting prime minister. But in the wake of the second Lebanon War such support is virtually heretical. Like most of the protesting public I am not an expert in political or defense affairs. But I do think a strong case can be made that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did the best job possible in the conduct of this conflict. The border incidents that precipitated to the war, while growing in number and severity, were nevertheless episodic. Hizbullah had been carefully calibrating its actions, precisely so as not to give Israel any justification for a serious response. The trigger event for this war surprised Hizbullah. I suggest that if the soldiers had, heaven forbid, been killed rather than kidnapped public reaction would have been different. This is not to belittle the affront and tragedy of the kidnappings. Hizbullah made three mistakes. It failed to understand the Israeli reaction to a kidnapping (with its implicit visions of torture). There may be cultural reasons for this misunderstanding. Second, it miscalculated Olmert's response and underestimated his ability to rally both political and public support for strong action in Lebanon. Third, Hizbullah did not foresee the stubbornness of US support for Israel even in the light of other international pressures. It is not clear if Olmert was prescient or lucky, but he must be applauded for his success in dealing with each of the above. He orchestrated an unexpectedly strong reaction to Hizbullah with across-the-board support at home, and he was able to keep the United States on Israel's side for four crucial weeks. In the current domestic and international climate these are significant accomplishments. SIX YEARS ago Israel left Lebanon with its tail between its legs. While the exit may have been justified, the creation of a vacuum allowed Hizbullah to become a dangerous fighting force. The way we departed gave the Arab world the impression of Israeli societal weakness. Both Olmert and the defense establishment knew that Israel would have to act to weaken Hizbullah. The difficult question was - when? Olmert's wisdom - or luck - was that he was able to transform this particular incident into the necessary justification. Intelligence about how strong Hizbullah had become was, as became apparent, lacking. This was not Olmert's fault. He took the most logical course of action. If Hizbullah was not terrifyingly strong, then the offensive could deal it a death blow. If Hizbullah was stronger than believed, then a weakening blow was crucial and the timing correct. We now know that the military was not fully prepared for this offensive. But it is unfathomable that this was the message given by the IDF to the prime minister. Olmert proceeded on the basis of information provided by the military establishment. In the case of the IDF, the message was probably: "You tell us what you want, and we'll do it." MY READING is that the stop-and-go nature of the offensive was not only a function of ineptitude in certain IDF quarters, but also a misreading of the willingness and ability of US President George W. Bush to stand behind Israel. Let's not forget that Bush is embroiled in a situation in Iraq for which there may be no solution, and from which there may be no avenue of respectable return. Under these circumstances no one in Israel could have foreseen Bush's (welcome) position in the Lebanese war, nor his ability to control the State Department and stand up to the European Union. Under these circumstances it would have been folly for Olmert to order a full-scale offensive - a move that could have quickly undermined US support. With the wisdom of hindsight it may indeed have been better to begin the military campaign at the Litani and work our way south. On the other hand, this might have been precisely the straw that would have broken US support. A larger and earlier ground offensive could have dealt Hizbullah a heavier blow. However, such an offensive could also have yielded many more Israeli casualties. Would Olmert have been able to retain political and public support at home in such a situation? THE PRIME minister's critics are quick to tell us what was not accomplished in the war: The kidnapped soldiers have not been returned; the rocket threat has not been removed; Hizbullah still holds substantial weaponry. But critics never mention the positive results: Hizbullah and the entire Arab world have seen a different face of Israel - not the face of disengagement, but the face of a nation prepared to take staunch military action. This has sent a critical psychological message. Hizbullah took a huge blow. Soldiers who were in Lebanon have reported that the IDF destroyed substantial quantities of weapons and ammunition, as well as militia bases. Many enemy fighters were killed. The Lebanese government and international community now understand that Israel will not tolerate anarchy in southern Lebanon. The US stood by Israel. Bush himself stood up to Arabists at the State Department. Moreover, Israel has learned much about Hizbullah-Iranian tactics, equipment and methods, and will be working very hard to be prepared for the next round. These accomplishments should not be ignored or belittled. It is all too easy to engage in our national sport of criticism. It is more difficult, but often necessary, to take a step back, to put oneself in the shoes of the decision-makers who must act in real time, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. As the Talmud says, "Do not judge your friend until you are in his position." The writer is an international lawyer based in Tel Aviv and adjunct professor of law at Cardozo Law School in New York.