Israel prepares for an inquiry into what went wrong

Israel prepares for an inquiry into what went wrong

One need not be a devotee of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz to wonder aloud if the calls for a commission of inquiry into Israel’s war with Hezbollah is what Israel needs right now. Do we really need another self-inflicted wound? Another rich mine of evidence about Israel’s "weakness" for Hezbollah’s propaganda machine?

And yet the establishment of an official commission is now all but certain. Too much has happened, too many people feel they were abandoned, betrayed, sold short, or held back. Too many credible observers have concluded that the Israeli Defense Forces may be a good fighting force that can learn from its mistakes but that the outcome of the war with Hezbollah reflected a country poorly served by its military and political leadership. Glib dismissals will no longer do. Some kind of mechanism must be found to assign responsibility, if not guilt. There is a price to be paid for being the only self-searching democracy in the region, but it is worth paying in the long run.

There are any number of different configurations possible for the make-up of such an inquiry, but it’s clear what will be on the inquirer’s agenda. There are three concrete issues: readiness, operations, and the civilian front.

There is also a broader, less defined issue that has less to do with "what we did" and more with "who we thought we were." Were Israelis so swept away by the success of their economy, so justly proud that financial guru Warren Buffet’s first foreign acquisition was a $4 billion purchase of an Israeli company, that we forgot about the rough neighborhood we live in? Did the government become less attentive to the dangers around it?

Readiness: It is now beyond dispute that there were problems with the preparation of the IDF for war. This time, and this is not simply the assessment of a former practitioner, it was not military intelligence, per se, that was to blame. The information was there, even about the deadly state-of-the-art Russian anti-tank missiles. But it was not always disseminated to those who needed it; it was not acted upon, for budgetary reasons, by providing expensive countermeasures to the tank units; and more generally, it was not translated into a systematic plan to have reserve tank divisions, the backbone of the IDF in wartime, ready for a northern mission.

Provisions were reduced, reservists found their storage units in poor condition, and there were failures of supply during the fighting, including supplies of food and water. Above all, the extent of call-ups for reservist training fell in recent years, largely for budgetary and larger economic reasons — not to disrupt the work of highly productive men in key industries. We now know it fell well below the minimal levels necessary to enable units to fight coherently once mobilized.

Operations: Paradoxically, what feeds the anger of the reservists — and the bereaved parents, who are now calling for Olmert and Peretz to go — is not that their units were sent into harm’s way, but that they were not sent far enough. Bitter criticism is now directed at the vacillation, indecision, delay, and repeated reversal of orders. There is a feeling that the basic operational framework in which the fighting was conducted — whether because too much was expected of the air force, or because of the interest at the political level in bringing Lebanese and U.N. forces to the border — violated basic rules of warfare, such as the full utilization of force and the need to maintain momentum in the battlefield.

Civilians under fire: Some government ministers dismiss the charges, but the evidence is overwhelming that communities in northern Israel were neglected. The government was not there when needed, and the municipal authorities, strong and resilient in Haifa, much weaker elsewhere, were largely left to fend for themselves. At the root of this was a decision by Olmert’s cabinet not to define this as a war, and thus avoid the implementation of extensive and costly measures required under the "Emergency Economy" system. This system would have bound workers to their positions in the vital services, prevented any wartime dismissals, secured provisions for people in the shelters, and empowered the Rear Areas Command to extend safety measures to sensitive areas, such as the chemical stores in the industrial areas north of Haifa. It didn’t happen.

Will all of this destroy Olmert? It’s too early to tell. A change in the murky pattern of cowardice by the international community; some robust action on the Syrian-Lebanese border to prevent re-supply; a prolonged period of stability — all of these might restore some of his government’s prestige in the public eye.

It will not, for the foreseeable future, allow Olmert to continue his "convergence" plan of further withdrawal from the west bank or of peace talks offering concessions on the Golan Heights to Syria. But once the commission gets under way, it may well be the economic-based decision not to declare that the country was at war and to activate the Emergency Economy system that might raise the most profound questions as to Olmert’s priorities, and those of our present political system as a whole.