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Israeli Leaders Still Not Sure They’re At War By: Michael Widlanski
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Most wartime leaders look for “an exit strategy,” but in the case of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, many Israelis are wondering if there is an “entry strategy.”

Indeed, in a striking statement that surprised reporters yesterday, Prime Minister Olmert seemed to be blaming the Israeli army for not moving earlier and more aggressively to root out terrorists shooting rockets into Israel.

“Until yesterday morning [Aug. 6] no operative plans were presented to me to expand our military activities in Lebanon beyond where our army now stands,” declared Mr. Olmert in his first live news briefing with reporters since the war began.

The Israeli army (IDF) is placed in a 2-6-kilometer strip north of the Israeli border, trying to root out launchers  of rockets that have struck up to 70 kilometers inside Israel, and Olmert has been under growing criticism for dragging his feet, for doing too little too late.

When asked yesterday  about the IDF proposals for expanding anti-terror operations in Lebanon, Olmert, perhaps inadvertently, once again appeared to be confirming his critics claims, when he said he would present the army ideas to the cabinet today. 

“This is clearly a sign of growing disharmony between the government and the army,” observed Oren Nahari, a commentator for Israeli Public Television. He hinted that Olmert, his fellow government ministers and army officers were trying to make their case to a critical public.


A few hours later, the IDF announced a major command shift, moving the deputy IDF chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, an infantry officer, to oversee the decisions of Maj. Gen. Oodi Adam, a logistics specialist.


General Adam, the Northern Front commander, was officially the field commander for all Israeli land operations in Lebanon for the last month, but, in fact, he was operating like a quarterback all of whose plays were being called from the bench.


Olmert and his cabinet colleagues carefully circumscribed Adam’s land operations, while IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, a career pilot and ex-air force commander, led a largely airborne approach to ending Hizballah’s rocket attacks on Israel.


The decision appointing infantry officer Kaplinsky effectively removes Adam from power, and it conveys at least three messages, some of which were loud but unspoken:


*--It is a tacit admission that the war has been badly mishandled, though it tries to shift blame to Adam;


*--It signals that Israel, after on-again-off-again hesitations,  may finally be moving to large infantry and armored movements in Lebanon;


*--It is part of a general tendency in the last two weeks by Prime Minister Olmert and Chief of Staff Halutz to prepare themselves for the post-war inquiries and recriminations.


"Look,  Haim, I imagine that the Chief of Staff can't remove himself so he went after the Northern Commander," deadpanned Israel Television military commentator Yoav Limor on  the Mabat News show last night (August 8, 2006).


As Israel nears the end of four weeks of fighting along the Lebanese border and seven weeks of fighting in Gaza,  Israeli decision-makers appear  guided by three main principles:


    *--avoidance of diplomatic sanctions;


     *--avoidance of military casualties;


     *-- and avoidance of domestic political   blame for the countless and obvious mistakes in judgment being made at the upper levels of government and the army.


Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Israeli Army  (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz have reiterated the slogan “there is no military solution to terror.”  They have studiously avoided setting  some clear and measurable war goals that look obvious to  former Israeli officials and IDF officers, including:


   *--Destroying the military machine of the Iranian-financed and controlled Hizballah terror organization that has continued to strike Israel even after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000;


   *-- And Stopping the daily rocket fire on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza.


None of these goals has been met, and many Israeli analysts can scarcely hide their disgust with the government’s performance.


“I don’t like offering the government advice in the middle of a war, but, as it stands today, if this is the way the war ends, then we have lost,” asserted Dr. Guy Bechor, head of Middle East Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.


Military commentators from the normally pro-Olmert newspaper Ha’aretz—Ze’ev Schiff, Amir Oren and Reuven Pedatzur—have sliced, sniped and bludgeoned the Government and the IDF for making almost every possible mistake.


From 100 to 300 Hizballah rockets have assailed Israel’s northern region every day for the last three and half weeks, while five or six Palestinian rockets have afflicted Israel’s south,  but Prime Minister Olmert has still not allowed his government  to call what is happening a “war.” 


The daily death toll has averaged between two to four  Israelis until Aug. 6,  when  15 were killed, including 12 army reservists, struck by rocket fire and shrapnel while waiting to be bused to their army units.  The number of wounded civilians in the north has averaged between 150-200  on three of the last few days of heavy rocket fire. 


Meanwhile, the Olmert Government’s top ministers have been arguing with each other whether the army should move one or two kilometers into Lebanon or  six kilometers into Lebanon, to the first hill ridge, or the second ridge or the Litani River.


Publicly, Olmert and his colleagues say they want to “push Hizballah back from the border” and to regain two Israeli soldiers kidnapped from Israel to Lebanon by Hizballah and one other Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza.


Privately, Defense Minister Peretz has sought approval from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice before okaying his own army’s operational ideas. Olmert himself has sent his director-general, Yoram Turbovitz, to coordinate military and diplomatic moves with the U.S., having lunch periodically with Rice’s deputy, David Welch, at several of Jerusalem’s downtown restaurants.


Indeed, both Olmert and Peretz, perhaps with State Department encouragement, had ruled out using many of the previously existing  combat plans prepared by the IDF and simulated in expensive  war games two and three months ago.


“I don’t understand what we’re waiting for,” declared retired Major General Uri Simhoni, who criticized Olmert in a television appearance, noting that three Israeli armored divisions were mobilized and  waiting to be used for more than one week.


The Israeli army reserve call-up—over three divisions by now—was only approved completely by the Olmert Government after nearly two weeks of political haggling and  three weeks of combat in what most Israelis are calling “Milhemet Levanon Ha-Shniyya”—“The Second Lebanon War.”


“In 1982, we took our cities out of rocket range within one day,” agreed another retired general, Yoram Yair. “Of course, we had casualties, but it’s the army’s job and the government’s job to protect the people, and not the people’s job to protect the army.”


Generals Yair and Simhoni—and most of Israel’s normally pro-Government press corps—assert that only a full ground assault that clears a 30-40 kilometer zone of Hizballah terrorists would be useful, because even the most primitive Soviet-made katyusha rocket has a range of 22-25 kilometers.


After 28 days of fighting in Lebanon and seven weeks of fighting in Gaza,   the current two-front combat is among the longest in Israel’s history and the costliest in terms of civilian casualties.


When Israel fought several Arab state armies in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War—known as the Yom Kippur War or October War—the fighting lasted less than three weeks and did not impact Israel’s home front. And when the fighting was done Israel was not far from the Egyptian capital of Cairo and the Syria capital of Damascus.


In fact, the closest comparison to the current situation is  Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Only then did  Israel suffer more significant civilian casualties and home front destruction when 6000 of the original 600,000 original Israelis died. Even then, only one-third of the casualties were civilians, according to Ze’ev Schiff, the military commentator of Ha’aretz.


About 100 Israelis have died in the war. Until Aug. 4, the vast majority were civilians, victims of Soviet-made, Iranian-made and Syrian-made rockets aimed at civilian targets. The Syrian-modified Fajr rockets are the most deadly, spewing small metal spheres that cut people to pieces as far away as 1000 yards from the impact site.


Most of IDF army casualties were caused by Soviet-made anti-tank missiles often aimed at Israeli vehicles trying to move dead and wounded. Despite the Israel air force’s  best efforts, Syria has continued to smuggle into Lebanon some of the anti-tank missiles and anti-civilian rockets, often using the smuggling routes of drug traffickers in eastern Lebanon.


Col. (Res.) Shmuel Gordon, a former IDF pilot and  planning expert said that the current war resembles the 1973 war when Egyptian and Syrian armies struck Israeli planes and tanks with Soviet-made anti-tank and SAM-missiles, at a time when Israeli planners felt Israel held a strong strategic edge, especially in airpower.


Today, too, said Colonel Gordon,  Israeli intelligence obviously did not realize the full implications of the relatively simple but deadly rocket and missile technology in Hizballah hands, and Israel did not invest in specific  technological solutions.


For example,  Israeli planners believed that overwhelming Israeli airpower would root out Hizballah rocketeers, and the IDF planners were so sure of themselves that they did not buy  American-made “bunker-buster” bombs when they were offered to Israel months ago.


Meanwhile, the Olmert Government has also been surprised by the economic costs and consequences of the war.


Two weeks ago, several Israeli newspapers published official government estimates that each day of fighting was costing Israel 100-million dollars, but these figures seem ridiculously low, considering the costs of rearmament, losses in economic productivity and tourism.


“If the war last 40 days, I believe it will cost one and half percent of our annual GNP,” declared Dr. Yaakov Sheinin, an independent economic analyst, during a radio interview. He said this would be about $400-million dollars, but industrialists in the Haifa region, where at least 20 factories have been destroyed,  say they alone have tens of millions of dollars of damage and additional costs.


Massive forest fires set off by the rocket fire have often burned out of control, as emergency forces try to rescue people in collapsed buildings. The fires have  destroyed thousands of acres of  natural forests that survived the despoiling of the Ottoman Turks and the Roman Empire. The ecological damage alone will take years to repair, if at all.


[This analyst believes direct and indirect war costs will easily surpass ten billion dollars—MW]


The northern third of the country has been severely affected, as up to two million people  have been terrorized, forced from their homes and jobs.


Those brave enough or foolish enough to go to work have often paid with their lives, such as half a dozen Haifa train yard workers killed two weeks ago.


Yet, only yesterday Olmert said he would meet with other ministers to try to come up with a domestic aid package for people whose homes have been destroyed, after two days of demonstrations by Israeli war refugees who say that they are being ignored by the government.


A tent-city for  more than 10,000 people was set up on the beaches south of Tel Aviv at Nitzanim—but not by Olmert, but rather by Arkadi Gaidemak, a rich Russian-born millionaire.


Until the beginning of this week, most of Israel’s wounded and about half of Israel’s wartime fatalities have been civilians—Jews, Muslims and Christians—struck by Hizballah rockets in cities, towns and villages such as Haifa, Nahariya and   Kiryat Shmona.


These and other communities—the holy rabbinical towns of  Safed and Tiberias and the archeological center in Acre—will have to be partially or completely rebuilt. The destruction in some of these towns is far worse than experienced by most people in the Lebanese towns of Beirut and Sidon.


What has stopped Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni and others from ordering a major Israeli military operation is the pervasive trauma of the 1982 Lebanon war—which is somewhat America’s Vietnam experience, including the fears of “quagmire” and getting “bogged down in Lebanon.”


Only one cabinet   minister, former general and former Defense Minister  Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has consistently supported a major ground operation towards Tyre, Sidon and even Beirut.


However, for the first time since the war began, Defense Minister Peretz gave a full briefing in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee [Aug. 6] in which he set forth a more aggressive military posture—one that has still not been approved by Olmert or the cabinet, who are looking for direction towards the U.S. and the U. N.


“Insofar as the diplomatic process does not reach a [successful] conclusion, I have ordered IDF forces to take the necessary action to conquer all rocket launching areas wherever they may be,” declared Peretz, even though he knew that he himself had not even yet formally proposed an expanded land operation.


Sooner or later, the Israeli public will be called on to judge the difference between loud statements and hesitant actions, between promised results and actual war achievements.


The man who took over for Ariel Sharon as acting prime minister several months ago by symbolically keeping an empty chair at the head of the cabinet table has still not really filled Sharon’s shoes, nor his chair.


For the past month, Olmert has avoided the Israeli press and the Israeli public like the plague, appearing in very controlled and brief appearances. This brought veiled press criticism and a tepid public relations defense from Olmert aides.


“He’s doing the right thing, and he will speak when he has something to say,” remarked Olmert press advisor Tal Zilberstat, two weeks ago, and many people concluded that Olmert still was not sure what he wanted to say or do.


Olmert first spoke to the country in a carefully scripted Knesset address after more than five days of fighting.  It was a largely uninspiring affair. One public speaking expert described the swaying  Olmert clinging to his podium as  an unconvincing impersonation of a yeshiva student at prayer.


Subsequently several Israeli columnists, such as Ben Caspit of Ma’ariv, wrote articles including the kind of speech Olmert should have given.


As the war ended  its third week, perhaps nearing a diplomatic denouement, Olmert  once again found his voice, scheduling two full speeches in controlled environments, a conference of mayors, and a graduation ceremony at the Israeli Army (IDF) Staff Command College.


At the first of these speeches, Olmert tried to strike a Churchill-ian mode, stressing that Israel would not accept assaults on its cities, but the next day, he said Israel had already achieved “unprecedented success” in restoring Israel’s deterrent.


As if in response, Hizballah hit Israel’s north with 240 rockets the next day, and many journalistic observers could not help but feel that Olmert was trying hard to “write” a victory, rather than lead to victory.


Israeli television and radio analysts said that some of Olmert’s speeches sounded as if the lawyer-politician was already preparing a defense brief for the commission of inquiry into the conduct of the war that many here are already beginning to demand.


It is not clear if Olmert and his Kadima Party will survive politically, if Israel does not wipe the smirk that has recently reappeared on the televised face of Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah.    If Israel cannot stop the rocket fire, it may have to settle for killing Nasrallah and rescuing the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizballah and Hamas.


These, however, are not easy assignments, and Olmert cannot consult the comatose former prime minister Sharon. Olmert has consulted former prime minister Ehud Barak, who hastily pulled Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000, declaring it a terrific victory. Less than a year later, Barak, beset by Palestinian attacks, was out of a job.


Now, less than half a year after Ehud Olmert succeeded Ariel Sharon, he may already be on his way to joining Ehud Barak in political limbo, becoming a has-been—or a never-was.  


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Dr. Michael Widlanski is a specialist in Arab politics and communication whose doctorate dealt with the Palestinian broadcast media. He is a former reporter, correspondent and editor, respectively, at The New York Times, The Cox Newspapers-Atlanta Constitution, and The Jerusalem Post. He has also served as a special advisor to Israeli delegations to peace talks in 1991-1992 and as Strategic Affairs Advisor to the Ministry of Public Security, editing secret PLO Archives captured in Jerusalem.

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