Some Lebanon War Riddles Solved and Their Relevance to Moves on Syria in Jerusalem Explained
Apparently out of the blue, a clutch of Israeli ministers – Amir Peretz, defense, Tzipi Livni, foreign affairs and Avi Dichter, internal security – have evinced a burning desire to talk peace with Syrian president Bashar Assad and even a willingness to discuss handing over the Golan captured in the 1967 war.
Monday, Aug. 21, prime minister Ehud Olmert stepped in with a reminder: Thousands of Hizballah missiles striking Israelis came from Syria, he said. Until that stops and the Palestinian terrorist commands are ejected from Damascus, we have nothing to discuss with Syria.
But the damage was done. Assad himself must have wondered what he had done to deserve this sudden attention from an American ally after three years of helping Baathist insurgents and al Qaeda fight US forces, hosting the most radical Palestinian groups including Hamas and Jihad Islami, and engineering the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The Israeli ministers’ timing was unfortunate; Syria continues to pump arms to Hizballah and Israeli soldiers are still deployed in Lebanon, holding the line against Hassan Nasrallah’s men and their Syrian and Iranian sponsors.
Furthermore, the Saudi king Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, for whose regimes the Syria-Iran-Hizballah pact poses an existential threat, must be stewing in their palaces over the senior Israeli ministers’ decision to go a-wooing after the Syrian president.
debkafile‘s political, military and Washington sources offer some disclosures to account for this apparently illogical behavior:
1. After refusing to see Iran’s long arm behind the Hamas in Gaza in the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza a year ago – in which those ministers played a lead role – they were dismayed to find themselves again face to face with Iran on a second front, behind Hizballah in Lebanon. And should Assad make good on his threat last week and go to war on the Golan, Israel will be hedged in by Tehran and its strategic partner on a third front. They therefore chose what looked like a quick fix for cutting Syria out of the hostile Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas-Jihad Islami equation: Offering the Golan to appease Assad.
The only trouble is that such a step would continue the land-for-peace policy which failed so strikingly in 2000 in Lebanon and in 2005 in Gaza – and which has been made irrelevant anyway by the outcome of the Lebanon war and the looming threat from Iran.
2. The second part of the ministers’ rationale is even more troubling.
The open letter of grievances signed by officers and men of the Israeli army’s crack Alexandroni Brigade shocked and still puzzles the entire nation. The lack of clear decisions was manifested, they said, in the failure to act, the non-implementation of operational plans and the cancellation amid combat of missions assigned the unit. The result was that the unit was deployed too long in hostile country without any operational purpose for reasons that were unprofessional and, moreover, held back from making contact with the enemy. In every stage of the war, cold feet were evident in decision-making.
The writers of the letter sensed the cold feet at the top but lacked the information to explain its cause or account for the cancellation and shifting about of mission directives in mid-battle.
That was one of the riddles of the Lebanon War.
Another was hinted at last week when Israel’s deputy chief of staff Maj-Gen Moshe Kaplinsky revealed that at 1200 noon, July 12, four hours after Hizballah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in a cross-border raid, no one on the general staff had any notion a war was in the offing.
A debkafile investigation has uncovered some facts that would help explain some of the mishaps.
The knife-edge threat that caught the Israeli army unprepared was welcomed in Washington. Our sources close to the Bush administration have learned that secretary of state Condoleezza Rice embraced the opening for an Israeli offensive against Hizballah in Lebanon. Vice President Dick Cheney also favored an Israeli air strike but worried about the lack of an Israeli plan for a parallel ground offensive. One of his aides later expressed the view that Olmert and Halutz had been cautioned that air offensives unaccompanied by ground assaults never achieved strategic goals, as the Americans discovered after bombing Baghdad at the start of the Iraq war in 2003.
But the Israeli prime minister and chief of staff insisted that the air force was able to inflict a shock defeat on Hizballah and produce a fast and cheap victory.
US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld was leery about any Israeli military offensive against Hizballah, fearing complications for the US army in Iraq at the peak of a surging sectarian civil war.
But Olmert talked Rice into asking President George W. Bush to back the air offensive. The US president acceded – only laying down two basic conditions: Israel must confine itself to an air campaign; before embarking on a ground offensive, a further American go-ahead would be required. The second was a promise to spare Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and only go for Hizballah’s positions and installations.
The conditions when relayed by the secretary of state were accepted by the prime minister. The first explains why Israel’s ground forces were held ready in bases for three long weeks rather than being sent into battle – up until the last stage. By then, the air force offensive had proved a long way short of fast and cheap; worse, it had been ineffectual.
The second condition accounts for another of the war’s enigmas: Israeli forces were not allowed to destroy buildings known to be occupied by Hizballah teams firing anti-tank rockets because it would have meant destroying Lebanese infrastructure.
This brought Israeli forces into extreme danger; they were forced to come back again and again to repeat cleansing operations in villages and towns close to the Israeli border, such as Maroun a-Ras, Bint Jubeil and Atia a-Chaab. This exposed them to Hizballah’s attrition tactics at the cost of painful casualties.
Only in the third week of the war, when the Bush administration saw the Israeli air force had failed to bring Hizballah to collapse, and the campaign would have to be salvaged in a hurry, did Rice give the green light for ground troops to go in en masse to try and finish off the Shiite terrorist group. Then too, an American stipulation was imposed: Israel troops must not reach the Litani River.
The Israel army did embark on a tardy wide-scale push to the LItani River and as far as Nabatia and Arnoun, but was soon cut short in its tracks. American spy satellites spotted the advance and Olmert was cautioned by Washington to hold his horses.
This last disastrous order released the welter of conflicting, incomprehensible orders which stirred up the entire chain of command – from the heads of the IDF’s Northern command down to the officers in the field. Operational orders designed to meet tactical combat situations were scrapped in mid-execution and new directives tumbled down the chute from above. Soldiers later complained that in one day, they were jerked into unreasoned actions by four to six contrary instructions.
None of the commanders at any level could explain what was going on because none were party to the backroom decision-making at the prime minister’s office. According to our sources, Olmert kept his exchanges with Condoleezza close to his chest and members of his cabinet and high army command firmly out of the process. The prime minister even kept the chief of staff out of the picture and did not explain why he was called on to chop and change tactics in the heat of war.
Olmert’s absolute compliance with Rice’s directives without fully comprehending their military import threw Israel’s entire war campaign into disorder.
Because of the muddle, supply trucks could not locate units and had to leave them without food and water, the subject of one of the bitterest complaints.
This botched sequence of decisions and their consequences also ties in with the fishing expedition in Damascus subsequently embarked on by senior Israeli ministers.
It appears that Condoleezza Rice was not exactly happy with the way the war turned out, nor with the failure of diplomacy to bring Lebanon’s hostilities to a satisfactory conclusion or even to deploy an effective multinational force to stabilize South Lebanon. She therefore decided to explore the chances of luring Bashar Assad away from the Iranian fold. This is a tentative idea which has not ripened into a policy – much less gained a White House go-ahead. But as soon as word was leaked to Jerusalem, several Israeli ministers jumped aboard – Peretz first, followed by Livni, who there and then created a Syrian Project Desk at the foreign ministry, the education minister, Yuli Tamir and finally, on Monday, Dichter.
These ministers know that the Olmert government stands on shaky legs against the spreading wave of popular disaffection over its management of the Lebanon war, its cost and its outcome. The clamor for a state inquiry is the least of the public’s demands. For government members who are caught between a fragile truce in Lebanon and a tenuous government, any distraction – even a reckless feeler towards a declared enemy – may look attractive.