Was the Mismanaged Lebanon War a Hiccup or Symptom of a Deeper Malady?

President George W. Bush has sent a top-secret directive to US intelligence agencies ordering a fresh evaluation of Israel’s internal robustness, its ability to function in times of war, the efficiency of its government and the Israeli Defense Forces’ operational capabilities.

This is reported exclusively by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources.

He wants the report on his desk before the end of September.

This is first time an American president has questioned the Jewish state’s strategic value since its establishment 58 years ago. Bush is anxious to find out, according to our sources, whether the mishandling of the Lebanon war by Israeli government and military leaders was a passing misstep susceptible to correction and repair or symptomatic of a more profound weakness underlying Israeli society, its political system and armed forces.

The presidential signature on the directive last week was led up to by ten days of intense debate at the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council- NIC, the State Department, the Pentagon’s intelligence service – the DIA and the Central Intelligence Agency – the CIA.

In bureaucratic terms, a senior US official involved in the process and anxious to preserve his anonymity described the presidential directive as the request for an updated National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Israel.

“Without saying so explicitly, Bush wants a clear professional answer to complex and loaded questions: Does Israel still measure up to the description of a strong and stable political and military force able to serve the United States as a Middle East ally? Can Washington still count on the Jewish state as a strategic mainstay in the region?”

The US official declined to name the Israeli leaders whose handling of the Lebanon war prompted the president’s questions. Neither would he fix the point in the conflict at which the US President began to entertain doubts about the chances of the Israeli government and army pulling out of its jam in Lebanon.


A large-scale reprisal that ballooned into a full-scale war


However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources, who interviewed several administration officials involved in the Lebanon war, have put together some of the background events which led up to the President’s extraordinary decision.

On July 12, Day One of the Israeli-Hizballah war, it was the understanding of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which she passed on to the president, that Israel had launched a large-scale retaliatory raid for the kidnap of its two soldiers and the death of another 8 in a Hizballah cross-border assault.

She estimated an operation of no more than three or four days.

No one in the White House, the Pentagon or the State Department had any inkling that a 34-day war was in train.

The proposal to take advantage of the conflict and give Iran a bloody nose far from its borders cropped up in White House discussions only later, when the Israeli air bombardment, the IDF-Hizballah clashes in Lebanon and the Hizballah rocket offensive against northern Israel had been going on for three days.

It was bandied about in sessions attended, according to our sources, by the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the head of the National Security Council, Stephen Hadley, Secretary Rice, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace and the US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton.

The last two, General Pace and Ambassador Bolton, eagerly pressed for the big reprisal operation to be expanded into a full-scale war.

Our sources report that even after President Bush added his voice to theirs, Condoleezza Rice remained unconvinced.

But on Day Four of the war, July 16, she came round.

It was then that the White House gave Israel the go-ahead for full-scale combat and enough latitude to deliver a mighty wallop – on one condition: the conflict must be kept within the bounds of Lebanon and not ignite the entire region.

This meant that Israel must hold back from direct action against Syria or Lebanon, Hizballah’s sponsors.

The two weeks from Sunday, July 16 to Sunday, July 30, were pivotal for the war and for US-Israel relations. It was a testing time most of all for the Bush White House’s perception of the new Olmert government, which had been in office less than five months.

Israel’s next moves generated the first doubts in the White House.

Although he had been given free rein, Ehud Olmert held back from sending ground troops into South Lebanon for a large-scale infantry offensive until too late. When he did, Israeli troops were quickly entangled in a string of costly battles that made no tactical sense, like the engagements in Maroun a Ras, Bint Jubeil and Attia al Chaab.


The famed Integrated System comes unstuck


Heads of the Bush administration found it hard to believe that Israel had gone to war without preparing the north – and potentially the central heartland – for a massive Hizballah rocket offensive which unleashed more than 4,000 rockets in 33 days. Neither could they understand how not a single government body took charge of caring for more than a million targeted civilians, who were either incarcerated in bomb shelters for more than a month or in flight as refugees.

As the fighting wore on, an uncertain White House pressed the Pentagon’s intelligence agency, the DIA, to explain these anomalies. But day after day, during those two critical weeks, the Pentagon’s military intelligence experts admitted themselves stumped. Their questions evoked stumbling and conflicting explanations from the Israelis, they said.

It was then, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say, that the White House top team decided to draw a line under the Lebanon war with a blank after a big question: We understand how Israeli intelligence works, it was said. But we can’t understand how the Integrated System supposed to pull together the operations of the various branches of the armed forces, air, tank, artillery, navy and armored infantry, came unstuck. What happened to the IDF’s Integrated System whose efficacy was so admired in counter-terror operations against Palestinians in Nablus and Jenin, Gaza City and Rafah?

A senior White House source familiar with the discussions that took place in the latter two weeks of the war told our sources: “It was the impression at the top American level of government that orders from chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz down to the Northern command and the division commanders on the ground were not translated into action for lack of coordination between the command centers and the field officers. The Israeli army appeared to have tied itself in knots.”


Rice seeks wisdom outside the White House circle


At the beginning of the second week of combat, DIA agents reported they had turned to Maj.-Gen Dan Harel, military attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington, for some clarification. Chief of the IDF’s Southern Command in 2005, he was currently senior liaison officer between the IDF and US security and intelligence establishments. They told him they needed some fast elucidation.

According to our American sources, Gen. Harel got back to the DIA 24 hours later. He regretted he was unable to give them answers because he had found no one in government in Jerusalem or the General Staff in Tel Aviv willing or able to brief him. He remarked that this was not a new occurrence; from Day One of the war he had not been updated.

It was then that the White House became really alarmed and began to seriously wonder what Olmert and his top commander were up to.

It was the end of July, two weeks and roughly midway into the conflict, when the president experienced a crisis of faith in the Israeli government’s conduct of the war.

At a loss, the Secretary of State sought wisdom from more seasoned heads outside Washington’s decision-making circle.

She chose two of her predecessors as secretary of state: Colin Powell, a former general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991; and Alexander Haig, President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State who worked the American end of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which brought the Israeli army to Beirut and caused Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian army to be banished from Lebanon.

In the 1970s, Gen. Haig’s was commander in chief of the North Atlantic Alliance.

Secretary Rice posed these two warhorses two questions:

1. Is the current Lebanon war winnable?

2. Can Israel come out the victor?

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources disclose their replies.

Colin Powell was the most sanguine, offering positive answers to both questions.

In his view, Israel was capable of winning the war, notwithstanding the many difficulties ahead – but only by mobilizing more divisions and conquering half of Lebanese territory as in 1982. Israeli troops would have to enter Beirut (which did not happen in 2006) in order to conduct a tough search-and-destroy crackdown against Hizballah.

There is no other way to wipe out a terrorist organization/militia, said Colin Powell – certainly not by air as the Israelis have been trying to do.


Stopping the war and passing the buck to the Europeans


Alexander Haig took a different line.

According to some sources, the former Reagan official did not directly address Rice’s two questions. He offered the view that the war situation in Lebanon did not look good for America or Israel and regretfully informed Rice that the Israelis were in bad trouble in Lebanon and the IDF had no hope of achieving its war goals.

Armed with a range of opinions, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that Condoleezza Rice came to the decision on August 1-3 that there was no option but to break away from cooperation with the Israelis, chart an exit path from the Lebanon war and co-opt the Europeans to a plan for bringing the war to a close.

Tuesday August 3, was the day that Bush revised Israel’s standing in Washington.

He summoned Rice and said the war must be stopped because there was no longer any hope of attaining its most important objective for the United States, namely a thrashing for Iran.

Bush is then quoted by some sources as making the following remark: Those Israelis; not what we thought.

It was this thumbs-down that produced the presidential directive ordering a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) update with regard to Israel, based on a hard look at the quality of Israel’s contemporary political and military leadership

The new report is expected to address some of the unanswered enigmas of the Lebanon war. As a senior Pentagon source put it to DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “The big question is why the big military step that was supposed to have taken place in the last week between August 7 and August 11, the knock-out blow, never materialized.

He was referring to the dash several divisions were poised to make – but didn’t – from the eastern slopes of Mt. Hermon to the Litani River.

American officials are now saying: We gave the Israelis time, weapons (by airlift), intelligence and, most important of all, trust. “We were confident they would follow through. Now we know they didn’t. Good faith has gone by the board.”

Similar tough questions and doubts at home are shaking Israel’s ruling establishment to the core and threatening an upheaval that will sweep it away.

They come from powerful groups of Israel’s most respected reserve generals and intelligence officials, who show incipient signs of revolt against the Olmert government and the top military command. But they are also dividing the governing coalition parties.

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