(JTA) – For many Israelis, the timing of this week’s prisoner swap with Hezbollah serves as a bitter reminder of the failings of the Second Lebanon War.
Two years since the 34-day conflagration – sparked by Hezbollah taking two Israeli soldiers captive in a cross-border attack – the war’s ostensible goals appear to be unrealized.
Rather than suffering a long-term blow, Hezbollah has managed to rearm and refortify itself in Lebanon. The Iran-backed group has gained veto power over Lebanon’s government and more than tripled the number of missiles in its arsenal from before the war, according to Israeli estimates.
Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, rather than being cowed or damaged by the war, has emerged as a popular hero in the Muslim world, inspiring confrontation with Israel from Gaza to Tehran.
And Israel, rather than recovering its two captive soldiers in the war, was reduced to negotiating with Hezbollah to bring home its boys, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
Two years on, there is a sense in Israel that the war’s lessons have not been internalized by a government distracted by other things, from the profane to the profound.
“Reading the newspapers this week, on the eve of the second anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Yoel Marcus wrote in Ha’aretz last week.
Marcus cited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s legal troubles, accusations of embezzlement against former finance minister Abraham Hirchson, Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon’s sexual harassment affair and ex-President Moshe Katsav’s demand for perks, including a new office and a car and driver, while still under indictment for sex crimes.
“Flip another page and you discover that the government debate on the Haim Ramon affair was two hours longer than an urgent Cabinet meeting this week to discuss the arms race being carried out by Hezbollah and Iran,” Marcus wrote. “Instead of holding symposia on the past, which nothing is going to change, we need to focus on the immediate future.”
Chief among those concerns is the threat of a nuclear Iran, which is inextricably connected to the Hezbollah problem. If Israel carries out a strike against suspected nuclear sites in Iran, the Jewish state must expect a retaliatory attack from Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon.
According to Israeli assessments, Hezbollah now has some 40,000 missiles, with ranges of up to 185 miles. That puts most of Israel’s population within range of rocket attack, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and possibly even Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert.
During the 2006 war, Hezbollah’s missiles reached no more than 45 miles inside Israel.
Over the past few days, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both have spoken up about the failure of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war. The measure called for Hezbollah’s disarmament and a beefed-up U.N. presence in Lebanon, UNIFIL, to prevent Iranian and Syrian arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah.
“Resolution 1701 is being violated,” Barak told a Labor Party meeting Monday. “Hezbollah continues to get stronger with the ongoing and intimate assistance of the Syrians.
“The delicate balance that exists on the northern border should not be violated on the two-year anniversary of the Second Lebanon War. We should make an explicit statement: Resolution 1701 did not work, it is not working, and all indications are that it will not work in the future. It is a failure.”
What many Israeli pundits want to know is why government officials only now are complaining of the failure to implement the U.N. resolution.
The government’s lack of action in the face of the growing Hezbollah threat raises questions about whether the government has a clear plan for how to confront the more complex and multifaceted Iranian threat.
Professor Yehezkel Dror, a key member of the Israeli panel that reviewed the government’s performance in the 2006 war, created a stir earlier this month when he said that Olmert’s lack of a coherent defense strategy is harming the country.
Dror added that he regretted not calling explicitly for Olmert’s resignation in the final report by the Winograd Committee.
“The current state of affairs worries me greatly; I would not trust this government with making critical decisions,” Dror told Israeli reporters. He called on Olmert to resign, saying the prime minister clearly “does not show strategic thinking.”
“It might be tragic for the prime minister, but better have this than a tragic outcome for the state,” he said.
Dror’s call has been echoed in the Israeli media. A recent editorial in Ha’aretz called on Olmert to go on vacation immediately and let someone else steward the country while he sorts out his legal troubles. The Jerusalem Post urged Olmert’s political party, Kadima, to elect a new leader.
If there is a silver lining to Israel’s failures vis-a-vis Hezbollah, it is that the 2006 war served as a wake-up call for the Israel Defense Forces.
In 2006, the army found itself ill prepared to fight the war in Lebanon due to its almost exclusive focus on Palestinian terrorism over the preceding five years. Now, military analysts say, the IDF has resumed intensive training for battles of the sort it saw in Lebanon. That could be helpful not just against Hezbollah but if the IDF has to fight Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Indeed, Israel’s stalemate with Hamas in Gaza is a byproduct of the IDF’s shortcomings in the Lebanon War.
Taking a page from Hezbollah’s playbook in 2006, Hamas was able to use rocket fire from the Gaza Strip to leverage a cease-fire from an Israel reticent of repeating in Gaza the mistakes it had made in Lebanon – namely, launching a major military offensive against a guerrilla army in hostile territory with unclear long-term goals and the likelihood of high casualties.
But some Israeli commentators say Olmert was wrong to apply the lessons of Lebanon to Gaza, since the failures in Lebanon were in the implementation of military strategy, not the decision to go to war.
“They didn’t learn about the limits of military power, they learned about the limits of military power when it’s used ineffectively and poorly led,” Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, said of the conclusions Olmert and his Cabinet drew from Lebanon. “The army could be more effectively led, more disciplined.”
“Every time we are on the edge of victory, we stop the battle one step too soon – two years ago in Lebanon, and now with Hamas,” Israel Harel wrote in Ha’aretz. “This allows the enemy to recover and claim victory, continuing the struggle, justifiably from his point of view, until the Zionist Jewish entity comes to an end.”