Israel a year after Lebanon

Israeli flags cover a memorial made up of the remnants of Katyusha rockets to 12 soldiers killed by a direct hit in Kfar Giladi during Israel's war with Hezbollah, Aug. 28, 2006. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli flags cover a memorial made up of the remnants of Katyusha rockets to 12 soldiers killed by a direct hit in Kfar Giladi during Israel’s war with Hezbollah, Aug. 28, 2006. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – One year after the Second Lebanon War, Israel’s northern front is
quiet, United Nations forces are patrolling the border area and Hezbollah fighters
have been pushed back deep inside Lebanese territory.That’s the good
news.On the other side of the equation, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is
still under pressure to resign for his poor conduct of the war, home-front defenses are suffering from neglect, Hezbollah is rearming with
bigger and better rockets, and there has been no sign of life from the
two abducted Israeli soldiers whose
abduction on July 12, 2006 sparked the 34-day conflict.One year later, these questions remain: How has Israel’s performance in the war affected its
standing in a hostile environment? Is U.N. Security Council Resolution
1701, which brought the fighting to an end, proving effective? What are
the chances of a prisoner exchange? What has been done to bring the Israel Defense Forces
up to speed and to bolster home defenses? And on the political front,
can Olmert survive as prime minister?In
the fighting, 119 soldiers and 44 civilians were killed. Israeli forces
proved unable to stop daily Hezbollah rocket barrages on civilian
population centers, national leadership was indecisive, ground troops
did not perform well and the captured soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, were not freed.Most experts maintain
that on balance, the war hurt Israel’s deterrent capacity. The problem
is particularly acute on the Syrian front, where President Bashar Assad
has been building up his arsenal of ground-to-ground, anti-aircraft and
anti-tank missiles.The Israeli concern is that Assad, given his
perception of the Israeli performance in Lebanon, may miscalculate his military strength relative to Israel’s and start hostilities.
In recent months, the Israeli government has sent Assad two clear messages: Israel has no intention of attacking Syria and, if war does break
out, Syria would be far
more vulnerable to Israeli firepower than Hezbollah because of its state apparatus and infrastructure.Israeli
intelligence believes the messages were received, but no one on the
Israeli side is discounting the possibility of another war in the North
this summer.In the immediate aftermath of the
war, Olmert presented U.N. Resolution 1701 as a major strategic gain. It
placed a “robust” U.N. force of more than 13,000 troops in the border area
previously occupied by Hezbollah, creating an effective buffer between
Israel and the Sh’iite militiamen.Indeed, in the year since the war,
Hezbollah has not fired a single shot across the border. An isolated
rocket attack on Kiryat Shemona in mid-June was attributed to a radical
Palestinian faction. Hezbollah fortifications near the border have
been destroyed, and arms and ammunition found there have been confiscated.Olmert says the days are gone when Hezbollah forces near the
border, with more than 10,000 Katyusha rockets trained on civilian,
military and strategic targets, could hold Israel captive.A
late June report released by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, however,
paints a more somber picture. According to Ban, Hezbollah continues to
receive vast quantities of arms from Syria and Iran in blatant
violation of 1701.Most of the weaponry comes overland across the
Syria-Lebanon border and includes rockets with a range of more than 150 miles. Hezbollah, according to the report, apparently is building
new positions outside the U.N. zone from which it would be able to launch
rocket attacks against Israel. Israel has complained several times
about the porous nature of the Syria-Lebanon border, but no one seems to
be doing anything about it.Israel also is concerned about the possible
military coordination among Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. For example,
if Assad were to launch hostilities later in the summer, Israeli intelligence believes Hezbollah would join in, and Iran would provide
more weapons and logistical support.Ban’s report on the fate
of the two Israeli captives is equally downbeat. He is sharply critical
of Hezbollah for not providing any sign of life from the two soldiers and
says concerns about their fate are growing.Israeli officials believe
that during the abduction, one of the men may have been badly wounded.
Contacts between Israel and Hezbollah through a German intermediary are
continuing, but nothing has been revealed about the soldiers’ conditions. Bargaining over a prisoner exchange apparently has yet
to get off the ground.The most dramatic change since the
war has occurred among Israel’s military forces. Following the criticism of its performance,
the army set up more than 40 internal panels to analyze shortcomings and
recommend improvements.As public protest swelled, Chief of Staff Dan
Halutz, an Air Force man, resigned and was replaced by Gabi Ashkenazi,
a seasoned infantry general. Ashkenazi introduced key changes in
doctrine and training. The notion that modern wars could be won by
firepower alone was replaced with the classic IDF doctrine of firepower
and ground force maneuvers combined. Training of ground forces and
reserves was increased significantly in light of the modified doctrine.
In late May, the IDF carried out joint exercises on a scale not seen
in years.There also has been new thinking on home-front
defenses. Dan Meridor, a former minister for strategic affairs,
recently produced a detailed report, “The Home Front as Battlefield,”
in which he argues that in modern rocket warfare, civilians are as
likely to find themselves on the frontline as soldiers, and that it is
incumbent on the government to prepare them psychologically and provide
the funding for their protection.Gaps in levels of security for rich
and poor could harm national resilience, Meridor said. But there has been little government action on building new shelters, making old ones more
habitable and providing funds for the construction of reinforced rooms
in private homes and apartments.The
big political question in the wake of the war is whether Olmert can maintain his hold on power much longer. The Winograd
Commission, the main panel investigating the overall conduct of the
war, issued a scathing interim report in April that was particularly
critical of the prime minister’s performance.By moving quickly to
close ranks in his Kadima Party, Olmert managed to survive. Pundits
say, however, that if the committee is as or more scathing in its final report, expected
in August, the prime minister may have to go.The Labor Party under the new
defense minister, Ehud Barak, is threatening to bring down the coalition government
– of which Labor is a key element – if Olmert stays.For Israel, the Second Lebanon War undoubtedly was a traumatic experience. But paradoxically, it may have
served as a timely wake-up call for both the military and the
politicians. As a result, regional perceptions notwithstanding, the country may
have emerged stronger.

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