No time to lose

By Amir Oren

Haaretz

Av 4, 5766

In the middle of the week, a close personal friend of U.S. President George Bush, who is also a generous donor to the Republican Party, called an Israeli friend who is a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces. "What's happening with you?" he asked, as angry as he was disappointed. "The best army in the region, one of the best armies in the world, is messing for two weeks with a terrorist organization three kilometers from the border, and the rockets keep falling on its population centers? We sent our army to bleed 6,000 miles from home after September 11. What's stopping you?"

Because this is the true surprise - a surprise of statesmen and not of intelligence - of the campaign in the north: no American red light, no flashing orange light, and not even a mere green light, but the blaring siren of the sheriff's car sitting behind the hesitant driver at the intersection urging him to get moving. The global cop is recruiting Israel as a regional cop, to impose Security Council Resolution 1559 on the government of Lebanon and dismantle the Hezbollah army. Sun, stand still at Givon. The Red Sea parts for the Israelites, as in Paramount Pictures, but this time there is no Moses around, maybe because Charlton Heston is sick.

Two forces of nature influenced all of Israel's wars: time and America. The two are really one. Time was always pressing. To move quickly to the offensive, to push far into the Arab territories before the world could figure out what was going on, because the moment they figured it out the Security Council would be convened and Israel would be halted and forced to give back the spoils. There was no lack of reasons for the desire to abbreviate the war - to spare lives, to free up the mobilized economy and to end the war with enough supplies in case hostilities resumed quickly - but the supreme imperative was to run as far as possible before the White House waved the black flag.

This time, though, it's convenient for Washington to have its Israeli protege whip the ward of the provocative power and even administer a thrashing. The difference, of course, lies in the identity of the adversary - Khomeinist Iran and not communist Russia.

Hassan Nasrallah is the leader of the Lebanese branch of the Revolutionary Guards, the local hand of Tehran's long arm. The hand's victory is the arm's victory; the hand's defeat, the arm's defeat. It was not the IDF's invasion of Lebanon and its 18-year presence there that engendered Hezbollah, but the Khomeini revolution of 1979. Jimmy Carter, with the self-righteousness that helped bring down the corrupt regime of the shah, contributed to the appearance of an even greater disaster. In the eyes of Hezbollah and its patrons, Israel is only one of the enemies. Hezbollah's fiercest terrorist attacks were perpetrated against the Americans and the French. Britons and others were also among the hostages who were grabbed in the 1980s like hot pitas. This is a war of religion and culture, which has no everlasting compromises, only tactical respites.

It is also turning the zealous Shiites into fighters who are ready to sacrifice themselves to sanctify the name of Allah. In 1988 Yitzhak Gershon was the commander of a Paratroops battalion that fought a bitter battle against Hezbollah at Maidoun. When he got back, he told his friends, "They aren't Palestinians. It's really hard with them." Without planes, tanks or artillery, it was hard to overcome them when the IDF, with the South Lebanon Army (SLA), was deployed in the security zone. It is even more costly when they are entrenched on a line from which they have decided not to retreat.

The IDF's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, without an apparatus to prevent the strengthening of Hezbollah with steep-trajectory weapons and on the line of contact, made the resumption of the war a matter for Iran and Syria to decide, with implementation by Hezbollah. In the years since then, senior IDF personnel were frightened of their image as fomenters of fear. People say that we are scaring people for no reason, they said, so maybe we should stop portraying Hezbollah as a terrifying monster. Now they regret not having stuck to the nightmarish scenario.

In their defense, those who previously played down Hezbollah's importance say that circumstances made it tricky to deliver a preventive blow on the eve of the U.S. war in Iraq and during the "orange revolution" in Beirut, when the Syrians were ousted from Lebanon. Nasrallah also made a mistake, IDF personnel said this week, because the Iranians, who were pleased by Nasrallah's provocations against Israel, are afraid that the Israeli response, with its American backing, has weakened Iran. Accordingly, in the evaluation of the General Staff, Nasrallah's status in Tehran has been seriously eroded.

And not only his, and not only in Tehran. In every war there were disagreements and weaknesses at the top level - prime ministers, defense ministers, chiefs of staff, commanders of corps and fronts. The public did not know, in real time, about David Ben-Gurion vs. Israel Galili in 1948, about the unwell Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan vs. Asaf Simhoni in 1956, about Yitzhak Rabin's collapse in 1967, about the war of the generals in the Southern Command in 1973, and one could go on to 1982 and further. Now everything is transparent, though there is still a certain restraint in reporting about the quarrels at the top.

At the center of the dispute now is Northern Command. In recent years the IDF has greatly enhanced the status of the generals of the territorial commands. They are the commanders-in-chief of the campaigns in their sectors. This tendency began when Shaul Mofaz was chief of staff, increased under Moshe Ya'alon, and would have hit new heights under Dan Halutz - until it encountered reality. The General Staff is indeed supposed to deal with the big decisions of the war and prepare the days to come, but the immediate decisions, which are the prerogative of the GOCs (generals of command) carry strategic implications when they come at a cost of many casualties and affect the public mood, as a blow that lands on it between the incessant landing of Katyusha rockets. When the General Staff orders heavy fire to be unleashed before direct contact, and the spirit of the order fizzles out on the way, the right address for complaints is in both the headquarters.

The previous GOCs in the north had a local background. The current GOC, Major General Udi Adam, has little military acquaintance with the arena. He was a fairly random appointment, on the verge of his retirement from the IDF as head of the Technological and Logistics Directorate, when the intention to appoint Major General Yiftah Ron Tal, GOC Army Headquarters (land forces) as GOC Northern Command was held up by the military advocate general and finally canceled.

The IDF repeatedly carried out offensive exercises under the codename of "Magen Haaretz" (Shield of the Land) to activate multidivisional forces in Lebanon should hostilities there resume. In the transition from exercise to reality, Adam preferred not to implement the big plan but to make do with limited and gradual ground activity. As such, he was a partner-victim to the puzzling mistake of the chief of staff, who did not demarcate the operational moves in time. It is one thing to believe that the Americans are providing time, but a different thing to manage the fighting as though there is no time, because at any moment something could happen and the circumstances will change. This is the lesson that Henry Kissinger taught in October 1973. On the way to Moscow, he reassured Israel and gave it all the time in the world, and the next day he changed his mind and the time ran out. Even when the government feels that Kissinger or Bush are not exerting pressure, an army is supposed to talk in terms of days and hours and make haste accordingly.

Adam decided - and the General Staff pondered and ratified - to refrain from amassing all the divisions of the big plan, and in the initial stages also to avoid activating all those that reported for duty. That decision had a reciprocal effect in connection with Halutz's decision not to send reserve units into Lebanon. For days (and nights) another ground move was waiting on the threshold of Lebanon, and for various reasons - from the weather to the climate of opinion among the decision-makers - it was delayed. The result was the focus on the battles of Maroun Ras and Bint Jbail, whose cost in terms of the fallen of Maglan and Egoz, Golani and the Paratroops and the helicopter pilots was too high for a limited achievement in the fighting to be considered justified. What would have come across as successful, or at least tolerable, with few casualties, will resonate as a failure in the light of the cost so far; and therefore a greater achievement is needed.

In his attitude toward Adam, the chief of staff tread on the thin ice of responsibility toward the operational mission, toward the defense of the civilians, toward the fighters who are endangering their lives, toward the GOC Northern Command himself. It is impossible tell a front commander "No" too many times, or alternatively to urge him on again and again, without sending him the message that his superiors have lost their confidence in him, and without bringing about a similar outcome of loss of confidence from below. Organizational bypasses, in the form of procedures to authorize "OS" (operations and sorties) or the appointment of "advisers" are too clumsy and do not foment a substantive change.

Adam is an Armored Corps officer who in the first two weeks activated mainly brigade teams of infantry and the Engineers Corps (and also tanks). Halutz bears the burden of proof of the primacy of air power. In his immediate vicinity are three major generals from the infantry: his deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky; chief of operations Gadi Eisenkott; and the GOC Army headquarters, Benny Gantz, whose appointment states that he is also "adviser to the chief of staff on the implementation of the land force." Advice is not command.

Brigadier General Eyal Eisenberg, a former commander of Shaldag, a special forces unit, and of the Givati infantry brigade, and now commander of a reserve division that trained also for missions in Lebanon, was asked to prepare deep-penetration operations, but until they are authorized he became Adam's adviser on the activation of special forces.

In order not to rely on the chief of staff alone, Defense Minister Amir Peretz appointed Major General (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi as the ministry's director general. The word in the General Staff is that not all the military reports to Peretz arrive properly and in full; rightly or wrongly, the blame for this is laid at the feet of Peretz's military secretariat, headed by Brigadier General Eitan Dangot, whom the IDF would be happy to replace, except that Peretz has fallen desperately in love with him. This is part of the tensions within and between the various echelons: there will be no big fights over glory here.

In the past two weeks, Peretz has repeatedly convened his political-diplomatic team, a mix of the Oslo process, the Center Party and the General Staff of the 1990s: Dalia Rabin and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak; Major Generals (res.) Ami Sagis, Amos Malka, David Ivri and Danny Rothschild; Daniel (son of Lord Michael) Levy; Peretz's close assistant Haggai Alon; Pini Meidan from the Mossad espionage agency and from Ehud Barak's bureau; retired ambassador Avi Primor; and former Mossad man and Foreign Ministry director general David Kimche. Meidan and Kimche also go on secret missions abroad for Peretz.

One of the proposals that was raised by the team: to strive for a peace treaty with Lebanon. As though there had not been the abortive treaty with Amin Jemayel in 1983, of which Kimche was one of the promoters. As could be expected, proposals to make contact with the Christians in Lebanon came up again, this time with General Michel Aoun or others. Maybe for that reason, but not only for that reason, the scent of the pipe of Mossad chief Meir Dagan wafted through the corridor of his office on Wednesday. Dagan closeted himself with Peretz for a tete-a-tete, as though he were Condoleezza Rice. The Lebanese say that in the past few months they apprehended two local Mossad networks. If that is true, the deal to exchange abductees-prisoners will also entail the release of the Mossad agents.

Class matters

The high-sounding talk about an imminent breakthrough is tempered by a tone of frustration and despair at the state of the war. General Home Front, the Israeli civilian in the battered north, is surviving - many people moved up their summer vacation plans - but is exposing a problematic class society. In a meeting about the home front in Peretz's office, a general was surprised to learn that in this year of 2006, there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have neither a credit card nor a checkbook. When Major General Gershon, the GOC Home Front, visited Maaleh Yosef, the council head reminded him that today, the 28th of the month, is a crucial day for those who receive old-age allowances, but the mobile postal service is refusing to take to the roads in the north and bring them the money.

When the decision-makers in the government are frozen in their hesitations about the additional ground move, and the tension rises between the General Staff and Northern Command on the one hand and between the General Staff and the defense minister's bureau on the other hand, when the casualties mount and the rockets fall, the weight of factors that are outside Israeli control increases.

First among these is American forbearance, which will ultimately run out in light of the IDF's performance, but equally important is the threat that constantly hangs over the leaders of Lebanon. The Druze leader Kamal Junblatt, the prime minister Rashid Karameh, the president Rene Moawad, the prime minister Rafik Hariri and of course Bashir Jemayel were victims of assassination, and it makes no difference whether the trigger was of the machine gun was squeezed or the button of the explosive device pressed by Iranian, Syrian or Hezbollah agents. Bashir is "murderable," an Israeli intelligence man warned in the summer of 1982, and he was indeed murdered and toppled the whole house of cards when he went down. Fouad Siniora knows that, and so do those who want to count on Siniora.

"A rule of thumb in Lebanon," a member of the General Staff who fought in Lebanon said in mid-July, "is that every operation against Katyushas lasts approximately two weeks" - in 1981, 1993 and 1996. This week the general was asked what happened to the rule. I guess the finger has to be changed, he said - or whoever it's connected to.