Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Israel's Lebanon Disaster By Michael Oren

January 30, 2008; Page A16

I had fought in war before but had never seen such intensive fire -- tracer bullets, rockets, artillery shells -- nor been assigned a more horrific detail. My unit was escorting the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed on the last night of the Second Lebanon War, a few hours before the U.N. cease-fire agreement took effect. None of us understood the purpose of this last-minute offensive or, indeed, many of the government's disastrous decisions during the war. We agreed that the burden of these failures would be borne by our leaders, military and civilians alike.

Now, a year and a half later, veterans of the war are demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accept responsibility for its conduct -- or risk unraveling the consensus on which Israel's survival depends.

The war began on July 12, 2006, when Hezbollah gunmen ambushed an Israeli border patrol, killing eight and kidnapping two. Mr. Olmert's response, a large-scale campaign intended to crush Hezbollah and secure the soldiers' release, was supported by most Israelis until serious mismanagement of the war surfaced. While receiving inadequate or faulty equipment -- my rifle literally fell apart in my hands -- Israeli forces were denied permission to invade Southern Lebanon and neutralize the katyusha rockets that were pummeling Israeli cities. Instead, Israeli jets bombed the Lebanese routes through which Syria resupplied Hezbollah and destroyed the organization's Beirut headquarters.

These attacks obliterated much of Hezbollah's infrastructure and killed a fourth of its fighters, but they also laid waste to a large part of Lebanon, killing civilians and squandering Israel's initial international backing. Hundreds of rockets, meanwhile, continued to smash into northern Israel, displacing a half-million civilians. Only on Aug. 13, after a month of fighting and with a U.N. ceasefire already approved, did the government authorize a ground offensive into Lebanon. The operation achieved nothing, either militarily or diplomatically, and cost the lives of 33 Israeli troops.

In another country, perhaps, such blunders might result in the resignation of senior officers but not necessarily elected officials. In Israel, though, no one is above blame. Accountability for decision making is a tenet of the Zionist ethos on which the Jewish state is based and, unlike most nations, Israel has a citizens' army in which the great majority -- politicians included -- serve. Most uniquely, Israel confronts daily security dangers and long-term threats to its existence. Israelis can neither condone nor afford a prime minister who passes the buck to their army or shirks the onus of defense. The person who sends us into battle cannot escape responsibility for our fate.

No sooner had the war ended than Israelis began demanding an official inquiry into its handling. Why did the government set unrealistic goals for the operation? Why were no orders given for an invasion, and why were no measures taken to protect the home front from missile attack? Above all, Israelis insisted on knowing why Mr. Olmert authorized a final offensive with no apparent objective other than enhancing his image.

Mr. Olmert resisted these demands, but public pressure forced him to appoint an investigative panel headed by Supreme Court Justice Eliyahu Winograd. While not empowered to recommend resignations, the commission issued a preliminary report that compelled Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to step down. The second Winograd report, scheduled for publication tomorrow, will focus on the prime minister's performance during the war, but Mr. Olmert has sworn not to cede power, irrespective of its findings. At stake is not merely the government's future but rather the fabric of Israeli society.

Israel lacks a constitution but is bound by an unwritten social contract. Israelis defend their country with their lives and their leaders' pledge not to send them to war heedlessly. Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Menachem Begin resigned in the aftermath of disappointing wars, though both were exonerated of incompetence. By ignoring these precedents, Mr. Olmert, whose culpability began before the war, when he appointed a defense minister devoid of military experience, threatens to break the contract. Israelis will think twice before following his orders -- and perhaps those of future prime ministers -- into battle. The cohesiveness that enabled Israel to survive 60 years of conflict will unwind.

Thousands of Israelis are calling for Mr. Olmert's resignation. Rightists convinced that the prime minister cannot safeguard the country's security have joined with leftists who understand that leaders who fail at war will never succeed at peacemaking. All are united by a willingness to shoulder the burden of Israel's defense. This was the commitment that united us that last night in Lebanon, as we took up the stretchers bearing the remains of somebody's son, somebody's husband, and brought them home for burial.

Mr. Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present" (Norton, 2008).