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Faith And Demand: Israelis On The IDF And Politics

After Hizballah War, Israelis Believe In Their Defense Forces More Than Political Leadership

By C. Hart | June 3, 2007

On June 12th, the election runoff for Israel’s Labor Party leader will be determined, and one thing is clear, the current Defense Minister, Amir Peretz, will be losing his job. Reports indicate that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is looking forward to the end of the Labor contest so he can quickly re-shuffle his cabinet and choose a new defense minister. Israel’s Home Front Command has recently announced that it will soon be preparing citizens for full-scale war, which many expect will begin sometime this summer.

A survey called, “The People Speak: Israeli Public Opinion on National Security 2005-2007” was recently published by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). In that report, over two-thirds of Israelis polled said they supported the decision of their government to go to war against Hizballah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006. The vast majority also believed that the Israeli government should have continued the war until Hizballah was destroyed, or until the P.O.W.’s were returned. It is obvious from the report that the population was not happy with the results of the war.

However, a significant portion of the Jewish public remains confident that Israel can cope successfully with any conceivable future threat to the state; and, they view Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the most serious threat facing Israel today. A majority of Israeli’s (76%) expect to see an outbreak of war between Israel and an Arab country or with Hizballah in the next three years. Confidence in the ability of the IDF to defend Israel remains high, while faith in the current political leadership remains low.

Israelis want to see change. Ehud Olmert has managed to keep his job as prime minister for the time being. However, when the final report of the Winograd Committee investigation is released this summer, if Israel is not already at war, Olmert may face serious challenges to his leadership by Israel’s opposition parties, and other disgruntled members of his government.
Meanwhile, statistics and polls don’t tell the whole story. If you just look at the numbers, you will get the wrong impression of how citizens felt during the Second Lebanon War, how society is dealing with the outcome of that war, and Israeli expectations for the future.

Some analysts believe that international pressure kept Israel from reaching a victory in Lebanon during last summer’s conflict. But, Western support of Israel, then, was high. America was behind Israel’s defense efforts for many days during the war, and Israelis were surprised by the continued support of not only U.S. President George W. Bush, but Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both leaders virtually gave Israel a green light to continue in the battle against Hizballah and finish off the terrorist army occupying much of south Lebanon.

What is clear is that Israel was not able to meet that goal. News reports have revealed that the IDF was not prepared to go to war last summer. Israeli leaders expected to go to war in the fall. They did not anticipate the battle with Hizballah to accelerate so quickly and expansively; their goals were unrealistic; and they did not have a definitive end strategy.

Olmert, being a career politician, was less experienced in defense related issues than his predecessor, former Prime Minister and General Ariel Sharon. In his cabinet, Olmert could have included a defense minister with superior qualifications to lead Israel into battle. Instead, he gave the coveted position to a politician who readily admitted he was inexperienced in military issues. Amir Peretz would have rather had the title of Finance Minister, with a desire to bring a socio-economic plan to the Israeli public. Having not anticipated a full-scale war any time soon, citizens were looking forward to their taxes being used to fund the poor and needy, not to supply IDF ground troops with more equipment, and tanks with more sophisticated weaponry.

Israel’s former Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz, was an experienced air force general, expecting, like many Israeli officers and defense analysts, that the nation’s future wars would be fought mainly in the air, and not as much on the ground. Israel went into war without good intelligence information. The IDF did not anticipate the strength and expertise of Hizballah to launch rockets deep into Israeli population centers, and to aim missiles that accurately hit Israeli tanks. No one knew just how entrenched Hizballah was in Lebanon’s neighborhoods, especially in the southern part of the country. Few expected that, in the beginning of the war, Hizballah would use an advanced rocket system, with the help of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to severely damage one of Israel’s naval vessels. Furthermore, the public was shocked that Hizballah would break all rules of engagement, hitting not only innocent civilians, but hospitals, as well. This was not a normal conventional war, and the kind of battle that Israel faced was not yet part of a military plan on how to confront the global war on terror.

Furthermore, Israelis were not prepared for an extended war on two fronts – Gaza in the south, and Lebanon in the north. The government did not officially call it a war until after the war ended. The surprise of the “unexpected” caused emotions to run high in Israeli society. Olmert’s questionable political decisions, putting members of his cabinet in wrong positions, showed lack of wisdom, which led to increased public mistrust.

While a majority of Israelis in the recent INSS poll said they believed the IDF should have pushed through to the end in Lebanon, perhaps it is more reflective of their desire, rather than the emotional will of the people at the time of the war. It is easier now for Israelis to analyze what happened then and say, in hindsight, what should have been done. However, during the war, the reality of the situation was different. Every dead soldier that came back from Lebanon was increasingly met with public frustration as the war progressed. In fact, after one well-known popular author protested the war with several of his friends, he got a call that his own son was killed in action.

Polls indicate that a majority of Israeli citizens stood behind the government’s decision to go to war. There are reasons for this. First of all, when Israelis are at war, they unite. The “left” and the “right” realize that they cannot afford to be divided. They stand together for the sake of the survival of the nation. Surrounded by mostly hostile neighbors, Israel’s survival is always at stake, but most definitely during times of conflict.

Secondly, when soldiers are kidnapped and taken as prisoners of war, a red line is crossed in Israeli society. Their value of human life surpasses that of most Middle Eastern societies, and Israelis will do everything they can to get their P.O.W.’s returned.

Traditionally, the Israeli soldier has been led to believe that his government and comrades won’t leave him to suffer in the field. They will retrieve him, dead or alive, and if he is abducted, they will do everything humanely possible to bring him back home. This is what contributes to the devotion and loyalty of those citizens serving in the army.

One of the reasons the public, at large, has not been supportive of the Olmert government, is because they believe that Olmert, himself, did not negotiate the successful return of Israel’s three P.O.W.’s before accepting international negotiations for a peaceful end to the war.

Discrepancies exist between what the polls say and what the reality on the ground was during the time of the Second Lebanon War. Israeli families were hearing from their sons and fathers that supplies in the field, including food and water were limited; and that weapons depots were not adequately equipped. They heard about the confusion in the ranks between officers, commanders, and combat units. They saw the indecision on the part of defense and political officials throughout the confrontation in the north. They understood that there was no strategic plan and no realistic goals to handle the terrorists, while recognizing that the enemy was well-equipped and ready to take on Israel at every turn.

Why would any mother want to sacrifice her son, or any wife want to sacrifice her husband, for a war that was being lost because of the failures of senior government and military officials?

The right scenario would have been for Israel to root out Hizballah in the first days of the war. The IDF took Hizballah by surprise then, and should have pressed on to Lebanon’s Litani River and beyond at that time. Israel missed a great opportunity because air power instead of a ground invasion was the main force used in the first few days. Hizballah quickly assessed this tactical error and was able to effectively set up ambushes. Eye witnesses said that Hizballah would act like snakes coming out of holes in the ground, fire on Israeli troops at close range, and then go back into their holes. Hizballah’s entrenchment in the basements and backyards of southern Lebanese homes gave them a distinct advantage over Israeli forces.

With good intelligence, Israel could have pushed through, on the ground, in those first few days, and severely damaged Hizballah's fighting power. Yet, as the war progressed, Israeli troops were hit badly, especially those men taking up positions in safe houses. Also, tank commanders were dying, because of Hizballah's ability to make direct hits on tanks with sophisticated missiles. Since the war, Israel has fitted tanks with systems to counter and defeat anti-tank missiles in preparation for a future war with Hizballah.

While the Olmert government could not stop Hizballah’s missiles from causing one-fourth of Israel’s population to flee from homes in the north, they also could not identify Hizballah headquarters, and were not able to destroy the terrorist army’s capabilities. In the end, the important thing was to get Israeli troops out of the battlefield before more lives were taken. Aimless plans caused Israel’s eventual withdrawal from battle.

Some have said that Israel actually won the war, because the IDF was able to push Hizballah's army out of the southern part of Lebanon; and, because the peace agreement with Lebanon gave the Lebanese government the diplomatic backbone needed to take over Hizballah positions in the south of the country. Yet, today, Hizballah has re-armed to pre-battle strength. The terrorist army has the backing of many Lebanese citizens and is still entrenching troops within the southern population.

Meanwhile, Israel has learned much from past mistakes. The majority of Israelis still believe in the IDF’s ability to defend the country, and the defense establishment is doing its best to meet those expectations. With the threat of war on the horizon involving at least three fronts (Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria), along with the possibility of a fourth front (Iran), the government has focused its defense budget on readying IDF troops; on re-stocking weapons depots; on unifying communications between officers and troops; and on equipping soldiers in the field with necessary supplies.

Emergency preparations have already begun, with defense exercises carried out during the past few months, including the unprecedented participation in drills of Israeli government officials. Leaders have more realistic goals; have defined their targets (hopefully with greater accuracy for the next conflict); and, have drawn up new plans based on new defense strategies for a new kind of terrorist war.

While a change in government is considered the ideal by many citizens, the certainty of a soon-coming war is of more concern to most of the population today, which doesn’t seem ready for new elections. Olmert may have weathered a political storm, and may still have another chance to prove himself, as Israelis prepare for a war they hope will have a different outcome than the last one.