Israel's supposedly "defensive" assault
on Hezbollah last summer, in which more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed
in a massive aerial bombardment that ended with Israel littering the country's
south with cluster bombs, was cast in a definitively different light last week
by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
His leaked testimony to the Winograd
Committee investigating the government's failures during the month-long
attack suggests that he had been preparing for such a war at least four
months before the official casus belli: the capture by Hezbollah of two
Israeli soldiers from a border post on July 12, 2006. Lebanon's devastation
was apparently designed to teach both Hezbollah and the country's wider public
Olmert's new account clarifies the confusing series of official justifications
for the war from the time.
First, we were told that the seizure of the soldiers was "an act of war"
by Lebanon and that a "shock and awe" campaign was needed to secure
their release. Or, as the then-chief of staff Dan Halutz taking time
out from disposing of his shares before market prices fell explained,
his pilots were going to "turn the clock back 20 years" in Lebanon.
Then the army claimed that it was trying to stop Hezbollah's rocket strikes.
But the bombing campaign targeted not only the rocket launchers but much of
Lebanon, including Beirut. (It was, of course, conveniently overlooked that
Hezbollah's rockets fell as a response to the Israeli bombardment and not the
other way round.)
And finally we were offered variations on the theme that ended the fighting:
the need to push Hezbollah (and, incidentally, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese
civilians) away from the northern border with Israel.
That was the thrust of UN Resolution 1701 that brought about the official
end of hostilities in mid-August. It also looked suspiciously like the reason
why Israel chose at the last minute to dump up to a million tiny bomblets
old U.S. stocks of cluster munitions with a very high failure rate that
are lying in south Lebanon's fields, playgrounds, and backyards waiting to explode.
What had been notable before Olmert's latest revelation was the clamor of
the military command to distance itself from Israel's failed attack on Hezbollah.
After his resignation, Halutz blamed the political echelon (meaning primarily
Olmert), while his subordinates blamed both Olmert and Halutz. The former chief
of staff was rounded on mainly because, it was claimed, being from the air force,
he had overestimated the likely effectiveness of his pilots in "neutralizing"
Given this background, Olmert has been obliging in his testimony to Winograd.
He has not only shouldered responsibility for the war to the Committee, but,
if Israeli media reports are to be believed, he has also publicized the fact
by leaking the details.
Olmert told Winograd that, far from making war on the hoof in response to the
capture of the two soldiers (the main mitigating factor for Israel's show
of aggression), he had been planning the attack on Lebanon since at least March
His testimony is more than plausible. Allusions to preexisting plans for a
ground invasion of Lebanon can be found in Israeli reporting from the time.
On the first day of the war, for example, the Jerusalem
reported, "Only weeks ago, an entire reserve division was drafted in
order to train for an operation such as the one the IDF is planning in response
to Wednesday morning's Hezbollah attacks on IDF forces along the northern border."
Olmert defended the preparations to the Committee on the grounds that Israel
expected Hezbollah to seize soldiers at some point and wanted to be ready with
a harsh response. The destruction of Lebanon would deter Hezbollah from considering
another such operation in the future.
There was an alternative route that Olmert and his commanders could have followed:
they could have sought to lessen the threat of attacks on the northern border
by damping down the main inciting causes of Israel's conflict with Hezbollah
According to Olmert's testimony, he was seeking just such a solution to the
main problem: a small corridor of land known as the Shebaa Farms claimed by
Lebanon but occupied by Israel since 1967. As a result of the Farms area's occupation,
Hezbollah has argued that Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 was
incomplete and that the territory still needed liberating.
Olmert's claim, however, does not stand up to scrutiny.
The Israeli media revealed in January that for much of the past two years
Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, has been all but prostrating himself before
Israel in back-channel negotiations over the return of Syrian territory, the
Golan, currently occupied by Israel. Although those talks offered Israel the
most favorable terms it could have hoped for (including declaring the Golan
a peace park open to Israelis), Sharon and then Olmert backed by the
U.S. refused to engage Damascus.
A deal on the Golan with Syria would almost certainly have ensured that Shebaa
Farms was returned to Lebanon. Had Israel or the U.S. wanted it, they could
have made considerable progress on this front.
The other major tension was Israel's repeated transgressions of the northern
border, complemented by Hezbollah's own, though less frequent, violations. After
the army's withdrawal in 2000, United Nations monitors recorded Israeli warplanes
violating Lebanese airspace almost daily. Regular overflights were made to Beirut,
where pilots used sonic booms to terrify the local population, and drones spied
on much of the country. Again, had Israel halted these violations of Lebanese
sovereignty, Hezbollah's own breach of Israeli sovereignty in attacking the
border post would have been hard to justify.
And finally, when Hezbollah did capture the soldiers, there was a chance for
Israel to negotiate over their return. Hezbollah made clear from the outset
that it wanted to exchange the soldiers for a handful of Lebanese prisoners
still in Israeli jails. But, of course, as Olmert's testimony implies, Israel
was not interested in talks or in halting its bombing campaign. That was not
part of the plan.
We can now start to piece together why.
According to the leaks, Olmert first discussed the preparations for a war against
Lebanon in January and then asked for detailed plans in March.
Understandably given the implications, Olmert's account has been decried by
leading Israeli politicians. Effi
Eitam has pointed out that Olmert's version echoes that of Hezbollah's leader,
Hassan Nasrallah, who claims his group knew that Israel wanted to attack Lebanon.
Steinitz argues that, if a war was expected, Olmert should not have approved
a large cut to the defense budget only weeks earlier. The explanation for that,
however, can probably be found in the forecasts about the war's outcome expressed
in cabinet by Halutz and government ministers. Halutz reportedly believed that
an air campaign would defeat Hezbollah in two to three days, after which Lebanon's
infrastructure could be wrecked unimpeded. Some ministers apparently thought
the war would be over even sooner.
In addition, a red herring has been offered by the General Staff, whose commanders
are claiming to the Israeli media that they were kept out of the loop by the
prime minister. If Olmert was planning a war against Lebanon, they argue, he
should not have left them so unprepared.
It is an intriguing, and unconvincing, proposition: who was Olmert discussing
war preparations with, if not with the General Staff? And how was he planning
to carry out that war if the General Staff was not intimately involved?
More interesting are the dates mentioned by Olmert. His first discussion of
a war against Lebanon was held on Jan. 8, 2006, four days after he became acting
prime minister following Ariel Sharon's brain hemorrhage and coma. Olmert held
his next meeting on the subject in March, presumably immediately after his victory
in the elections. There were apparently more talks in April, May, and July.
Rather than the impression that has been created by Olmert of a rookie prime
minister and military novice "going it alone" in planning a major
military offensive against a neighboring state, a more likely scenario starts
to take shape. It suggests that from the moment that Olmert took up the reins
of power, he was slowly brought into the army's confidence, first tentatively
in January and then more fully after his election. He was allowed to know of
the senior command's secret and well-advanced plans for war plans, we
can assume, his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, a former general, had been deeply
involved in advancing.
But why would Olmert now want to shoulder responsibility for the unsuccessful
war if he only approved, rather than formulated, it? Possibly because Olmert,
who has appeared militarily weak and inexperienced to the Israeli public, does
not want to prove his critics right. And also because, with most of his political
capital exhausted, he would be unlikely to survive a battle for Israeli hearts
and minds against the army (according to all polls, the most revered institution
in Israeli society) should he try to blame them for last summer's fiasco. With
Halutz gone, Olmert has little choice but to say "mea culpa."
What is the evidence that Israel's generals had already established the
protocols for a war?
First, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, published soon after
the outbreak of war, revealed that the Israeli army had been readying for a
wide-ranging assault on Lebanon for years, and had a specific plan for a "Three-Week
War" that they had shared with Washington think tanks and U.S. officials.
"More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint
presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to U.S. and other diplomats, journalists,
and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing
reporter Matthew Kalman.
That view was confirmed this week by an anonymous senior officer who told
the Ha'aretz newspaper that the army had a well-established plan
for an extensive ground invasion of Lebanon, but that Olmert had shied away
from putting it into action. "I don't know if he [Olmert] was familiar
with the details of the plan, but everyone knew that the IDF [army] had a ground
operation ready for implementation."
And second, we have an interview in the Israeli media with Meyrav Wurmser,
the wife of one of the highest officials in the Bush administration, David Wurmser,
Vice President Dick Cheney's adviser on the Middle East. Meyrav Wurmser, an
Israeli citizen, is herself closely associated with MEMRI, a group that translates
(and mistranslates) speeches by Arab leaders and officials and that is known
for its ties to the Israeli secret services.
She told the Web site of Israel's leading newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth,
that the U.S. stalled over imposing a cease-fire during Israel's assault on
Lebanon because the
Bush administration was expecting the war to be expanded to Syria.
"The anger [in the White House] is over the fact that Israel did not
fight against the Syrians.
The neocons are responsible for the fact that
Israel got a lot of time and space
They believed that Israel should be
allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight
against the real enemy, the one backing Hezbollah. It was obvious that it is
impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its [Iran's]
strategic and important ally [Syria] should be hit."
In other words, the picture that emerges is of a long-standing plan by the
Israeli army, approved by senior U.S. officials, for a rapid war against Lebanon
followed by possible intimidatory strikes against Syria using
the pretext of a cross-border incident involving Hezbollah. The real purpose,
we can surmise, was to weaken what are seen by Israel and the U.S. to be Tehran's
allies before an attack on Iran itself.
That was why neither the Americans nor Israel wanted, or appear still to want,
to negotiate with Assad over the Golan and seek a peace agreement that could
for once change the map of the Middle East for the better.
Despite signs of a slight thawing in Washington's relations with Iran and
Syria in the past few days, driven by the desperate U.S. need to stop sinking
deeper into the mire of Iraq, Damascus is understandably wary.
The continuing aggressive Israeli and U.S. postures have provoked a predictable
reaction from Syria: it has started building up its defenses along the border
with Israel. But in the Through
the Looking Glass world of Israeli military intelligence, that response
is being interpreted or spun as a sign of an imminent attack by
Such, for example, is the opinion of Martin Van Creveld, an Israeli professor
of military history, usually described as eminent and doubtless with impeccable
contacts in the Israeli military establishment, who recently penned an
article in the American Jewish weekly, the Forward.
He suggests that Syria, rather than wanting to negotiate over the Golan as
all the evidence suggests is planning to launch an attack on Israel, possibly
using chemical weapons, in October 2008 under cover of fog and rain. The goal
of the attack? Apparently, says the professor, Syria wants to "inflict
casualties" and ensure Jerusalem "throws in the towel."
What's the professor's evidence for these Syrian designs? That its
military has been on an armaments shopping spree in Russia, and has been studying
the lessons of the Lebanon war.
He predicts (of Syria, not Israel) the following: "Some incident will be
generated and used as an excuse for opening rocket fire on the Golan Heights
and the Galilee." And he concludes: "Overall the emerging Syrian plan
is a good one with a reasonable chance of success."
And what can stop the Syrians? Not peace talks, argues Van Creveld:
"Obviously, much will depend on what happens in Iraq and Iran. A short,
successful American offensive in Iran may persuade Assad that the Israelis,
much of whose hardware is either American or American-derived, cannot be countered,
especially in the air. Conversely, an American withdrawal from Iraq, combined
with an American-Iranian stalemate in the Persian Gulf, will go a long way toward
untying Assad's hands."
It all sounds familiar. Iran wants the nuclear destruction of Israel, and
Syria wants Jerusalem to "throw in the towel" or so the neocons
and the useful idiots of "the clash of civilizations" would have us
believe. We should fear that they may get their way and push Israel and the U.S.
toward another preemptive war or maybe two.