The Lebanon withdrawal reconsidered

What did we do wrong six years ago, and what lessons are to be drawn?

Does anyone still remember the avowed reason for our unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago - so that no more Israelis would die on Lebanese soil? At the time, our fatalities in Lebanon averaged 20 to 25 soldiers a year. In the four weeks since the current fighting began, Israel has suffered 102 fatalities - the equivalent of four to five years worth of fighting in Lebanon before the withdrawal. Granted, only 63 of these casualties have been soldiers; the rest have been civilians. But that hardly seems an improvement. Moreover, unlike our 18-year occupation of south Lebanon, this war has been fought largely on the home front, with consequently enormous economic and human costs. The north's economy has been virtually shut down for four weeks (and counting). Many small businesses have been so damaged that they will never reopen. Some 1.5 million residents of the north have either become internal refugees or been forced to spend four miserable weeks in bomb shelters. And some have lost their homes entirely in rocket strikes. By comparison, the costs of staying in south Lebanon no longer look so steep. And in fact, they never would have, had they been calculated correctly. Unfortunately, the decision to withdraw from Lebanon suffered from the same flaws that afflict far too many Israeli foreign policy decisions: failure to take the other side's motives and perceptions into account, and an obsession with preventing short-term casualties. THE THEORY behind the Lebanon pullout was that once Israel withdrew, Lebanon would have no further quarrel with Israel, so hostilities would cease. Unfortunately, this theory ignored several salient and well-known facts. First, Hizbullah was armed and financed - and therefore heavily influenced - by Iran and Syria, neither of which concealed their continued hostility to Israel. Second, Hizbullah itself declared periodically that hostilities were justified as long as Israel occupied any Arab land - and it defined all of Israel as "occupied territory." Third, Lebanon was controlled by Syria, and was therefore powerless to suppress Hizbullah against Syria's will even had most Lebanese wanted to do so (at that time, no one envisioned Syria's later ouster). Fourth, Lebanon was still traumatized by the 15-year civil war that had ended only 10 years earlier, and was therefore unlikely to risk another by trying to forcibly disarm Hizbullah even if it regained its independence. Given all this, the outcome was predictable: As Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah told a news conference on July 12, the organization began preparing for war against Israel from the moment Israel left Lebanon. With the Israel Defense Forces no longer there to disrupt its supply lines, it massively expanded its arsenal, acquiring sophisticated antitank missiles and 12,000 to 14,000 rockets from Syria and Iran. Absent the IDF, it was also able to deploy its rockets near the border, thereby bringing much more of Israel into range than had been the case previously. Haifa, for instance, suffered not a single rocket strike during Israel's 18 years in Lebanon - but over the last month, it has been battered repeatedly. Additionally, Hizbullah built a network of fortified bunkers near the border, which have greatly increased IDF casualties in the current fighting. Israel also forfeited two other assets by leaving Lebanon. One was the South Lebanon Army, whose soldiers fought alongside the IDF for 18 years. Today, having abandoned the SLA to Hizbullah's tender mercies, Israel is fighting alone. The second was its intelligence network, which shrunk drastically following the withdrawal - both because Israel could no longer offer Lebanese agents either the benefits or the protection that it could when the IDF was present, and because much intelligence had come from the now defunct SLA. ALL OF the above meant that when hostilities did resume - as Hizbullah's known goals and allegiances made it inevitable that they would - they exacted a far higher price than they had before the withdrawal. Even worse, however, was Israel's disregard for how the rest of the Arab world would perceive a unilateral withdrawal. This perception was no secret, since numerous Arab spokesmen, newspapers and opinion polls proclaimed it: that Israel could be defeated by inflicting enough casualties over a long enough time. But Israeli proponents of withdrawal insisted that Arab perceptions did not matter. Unfortunately, they do matter - as became evident just four months later, when the intifada erupted. Palestinian terrorists and their supporters said openly that Israel's retreat from Lebanon encouraged them to believe that Hizbullah's tactics would work for them as well. The result was a six-year terrorist war that left over 1,000 Israelis dead, most of them civilians - the equivalent of 40 years worth of casualties in south Lebanon. But this costly misreading of Arab motives and perceptions did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it was encouraged by an obsessive preoccupation with short-term casualties. The message of pro-withdrawal movements such as Four Mothers - which ultimately convinced most Israelis to support the pullout - was "leave Lebanon now, so that your son will not die there tomorrow." That is a message of unarguable emotional power. And it made people want to believe that withdrawing would have no negative long-term consequences, despite the evidence to the contrary. This same pattern repeated itself five years later in Gaza: Obsessed with a desire to end the casualties in Gaza now, Israelis supported disengagement despite the fact that Palestinian spokesmen and opinion polls trumpeted it as proof that terrorism works, and that organizations like Hamas openly proclaimed Israel's eradication as their goal. And the results have been similar: Kassam rocket fire on Israel from Gaza intensified, and according to Israeli intelligence, more lethal weaponry is pouring into Gaza at a furious rate. This combination - an obsessive focus on preventing short-term casualties, coupled with disregard of the enemy's motives and perceptions - will always produce disastrous long-term consequences. It is therefore past time for Israelis to face up to the unpleasant truth: There is nothing good about losing 25 soldiers a year. But if the alternative is far greater losses in the future, it is nevertheless a price worth paying.