Israel's rush to war

May 02, 2007

Since Israel's founding, its leaders have primarily come from the warrior class, many of them decorated veterans of the country's wars for survival. Ariel Sharon, forced from office because of a debilitating stroke, was the last of that generation, and the military inexperience of Israel's present leadership was never more felt than last summer. Israelis didn't need a special commission to verify what many already knew, but it's official now - the war in southern Lebanon was a disaster of ineptitude and unpreparedness.

The report by a committee led by retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd this week harshly criticized Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the former military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Daniel Halutz, for hastily engaging in war with the Shiite militia group Hezbollah without assessing the enemy's capability, adequately planning Israel's response and anticipating the consequences. The trio also failed to thoroughly examine a political or diplomatic solution to the July 12 cross-border attack and capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah.

The committee's report could be the final shove out the door for Mr. Olmert - his popularity among Israelis is in the single digits. But to look at the report solely in terms of the Olmert government would be a mistake because it reflects on Israeli society's allegiance to and reliance on its military, a relationship that should be re-examined to ensure Israel's security.

If Mr. Olmert and Mr. Peretz, because of their inexperience, relied too much on the military, they also were ill-served by the top army commander, who, according to the Winograd committee, misrepresented his troops' preparedness and squelched opposing views. Mr. Olmert's march into Lebanon cost the lives of many more Lebanese civilians than Hezbollah gunmen and rocked Lebanon's fragile democracy, which has yet to recover.

Mr. Olmert says he won't resign but is focused on correcting any residual problems. But he can't remediate Hezbollah's improved image - it can rightly boast that it withstood a pounding from the army reputed to be the best in the region. And while the 2006 war did bring international peacekeepers to southern Lebanon for more robust work, Hezbollah remains a potent force there.

The war in Lebanon reinforced what Israelis have known firsthand and better than their American or European counterparts have: Conventional war is a relic, and air power alone can't defeat an army of guerrilla insurgents. The paradigm for victory has shifted, and how the United States' chief ally in the Middle East responds will have repercussions far beyond Jerusalem or one prime minister.

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