If God wills, even a broomstick will shoot. That is an old Yiddish adage. One could add now: If God wills, even Olmert can sometimes tell the truth.
The truth, according to the Prime Minister’s testimony before the Inquiry Commission headed by Judge Vinograd that was leaked to the media yesterday, is that this was not a spontaneous reaction to the capture of the two soldiers, but a war planned a long time ago. We said so right from the start.
Olmert told the commission that immediately after assuming the functions of acting prime minister, in January 2006, he consulted with the army chiefs about the situation on the northern border. Until then, the prevailing doctrine followed Ariel Sharon’s decision – logical from his point of view – not to react in force to provocations in the north, so that the Israeli army could concentrate on fighting the Palestinians. But this enabled Hizbullah to build up a large stockpile of rockets of all kinds. Olmert decided to change that policy.
The army prepared a two-pronged plan: an operation on the ground aimed at the elimination of Hizbullah, and an aerial offensive, aimed at the destruction of the Lebanese infrastructure, in order to put pressure on the Lebanese public which in turn would put pressure on Hizbullah. As the Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz, said at the beginning of the war: "we shall turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years." (a rather modest aim, compared to the famous proposal of an American colleague: to "bomb Vietnam back to the stone age".) The Air Force was also tasked with destroying Hizbullah’s rocket arsenal.
But nowadays it is not proper anymore to attack a country without a convincing reason. Already before the First Lebanon War, the Americans demanded that Israel attack only after a clear provocation that would convince the world. The necessary justification was provided at the right time by the Abu Nidal gang, which tried to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London. In the recent case, it was decided in advance that the capture of Israeli soldiers would constitute such a provocation.
A cynic might argue that this decision turned Israeli soldiers into bait. It was known that Hizbullah wanted to capture soldiers in order to force a prisoner exchange. The regular Israeli army patrols along the border fence were, in a way, a standing invitation to Hizbullah to carry out their evil design.
The capture of the soldier Gilad Shalit by Palestinians near the Gaza border fence turned on a red light in Israel. Olmert said in his testimony that from that moment on, he was convinced that Hizbullah was about to try to carry out a similar exploit.
If so, the prime minister should perhaps have ordered the army to halt the patrols along the northern border, or to reinforce them in a way that would deter Hizbullah. That was not done. The poor members of the fateful patrol set out on their way as to a picnic.
The same cynic might argue that Olmert and the army chiefs were interested in a pretext in order to execute their war plans. They were convinced, anyhow, that the soldiers would be brought home in a jiffy. But, as the British royal motto says, Honi soit qui mal y pense – Shame upon him who thinks ill of it.
Anyhow, Hizbullah attacked, two soldiers were captured, and the planned operation should have started rolling smoothly. But that did not happen. The war did indeed break out, as planned, but from then on almost nothing went according to plan. Consultations were hasty, the decisions confused, the operations indecisive. It now appears that the plan was not yet finalized and confirmed.
The Vinograd commission is supposed to find the answers to some tough questions: If the war was planned such a long time in advance, why was the army not ready for war? How come the army budget was reduced? How come the emergency arsenals were empty? Why were the reserve forces, which were supposed to carry out the operations on the ground, called up only when the war was already in full swing? And after they were finally deployed, why did they receive confused and contradictory orders?
All these show that Olmert and the generals were grossly incompetent in their military decision-making. But they also lacked any understanding of the international scene.
Hassan Nasrallah has openly admitted that he made a mistake.
He did not understand that there had been a change in Israel: instead of Sharon, an old war-horse who was not looking for action in the north, a new man had arrived, an inexperienced politician itching for war. What Nasrallah had in mind was just another round of the usual: the capture of some soldiers and a prisoner exchange. Instead, a full-blown war broke out.
But Ehud Olmert’s mistake was even bigger. He was convinced that the United States would give him a blessing for the road and allow him to roam in Lebanon at will. But American interests, too, had changed.
In Lebanon, the government of Fuad Siniora has succeeded in uniting all pro-American forces. They have loyally carried out all of Washington’s orders, have driven out the Syrians and have supported the investigation of Rafiq Hariri’s murder, which is to provide the Americans with a pretext for a massive strike against Syria.
According to Olmert’s leaks, Condoleezza Rice called him just after the outbreak of the war and conveyed to him the up-to-date American orders : it was indeed desired that Israel should deal a crushing blow to Hizbullah, the enemies of Siniora, but it was absolutely forbidden to do anything that would hurt Siniora, such as bombing Lebanese infrastructure outside Hizbullah’s territory.
That emasculated the General Staff’s plans. The main idea had been that if the civilian population in Lebanon was hurt sufficiently, it would put pressure on the government to act decisively against Hizbullah, enough to liquidate the organization or, at least, to disarm it. It is very doubtful whether this strategy would have succeeded if it had been carried out, but because of the American intervention it was not carried out.
Instead of the massive bombardment that would have destroyed the basic industries and facilities, Halutz had to be satisfied – after Condeleezza’s phone call – with bombing the roads and bridges that serve Hizbullah and the Shiite population (including the supply lines for Syrian arms to Hizbullahland.) The damage was extensive, but not sufficient to bring Lebanon to its knees – if that was at all possible. Apart from that, the air force succeeded in destroying some of the long-range missiles, but the short-range missiles were not hit, and it was those that created havoc among the population in northern Israel.
On the ground, the operation was even more confused. Only during the last 48 hours of the war, when it was already clear that the cease-fire was about to come into force, was the major offensive, in which 33 Israeli soldiers died, set in motion. What for? In his testimony, Olmert asserts that it was necessary in order to change some points in the UN resolution in Israel’s favor. We know today (as we said at the time) that these changes were worthless and they remained on paper.
The intervention of Condoleezza Rice in the conduct of the war is interesting also in another respect. It sheds light on a question that has been engaging the experts for some time now: in the relationship between the United States and Israel, do American interests override Israeli, or is it the other way round?
This discussion came to a head when the American professors, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, published their research paper, according to which Israel imposes on the United States a policy that is contrary to the American national interest. The conclusion upset many who believe the opposite: that Israel is but a small wheel in the imperial American machine. (I permitted myself to argue that both versions are right: the American dog wags its Israeli tail, and the Israeli tail wags the American dog.)
When Condoleezza Rice encouraged Israel to go to war but vetoed an essential part of the war plan, it seems that she proved the two professors wrong. True, Olmert got American permission for his war, which served American interests (the elimination of Hizbullah, which opposed the pro-American Siniora government, though it officially belonged to it), but only with severe limitations (in order not to hurt the Siniora government).
The same principle is now operating on the Syrian front.
Bashar al-Assad offers Israel peace negotiations without prior conditions. This way, he hopes to avert an American attack on his country. Like the two professors, he believes that the Israeli lobby rules Washington.
Almost all the important experts in Israel are in agreement that the Syrian offer is serious. Even in "security circles" some are urging Olmert to seize the opportunity and achieve peace in the north.
But the Americans have put an absolute veto on that, which Olmert has accepted. A vital Israeli interest has been sacrificed on the American altar. Even now, when Bush is already entering into some kind of a dialog with Syria, the Americans are prohibiting us from doing the same.
Why? Very simple: the Americans are using us as a threat. They hold us on a line, like an attack dog, and tell Assad: if you don’t do as we wish, we shall release the dog.
If the Americans reach an agreement with the Syrians, using this threat among others, it is they who will garner the political profits from any accord we reach with Syria in the end.
That reminds me of the events of 1973. After the October war, Israeli-Egyptian cease-fire negotiations started at km 101 (from Cairo). At some stage, General Israel Tal took over as the chief of the Israeli delegation. Much later, he told me the following story:
"At a certain point, General Gamasy, the Egyptian representative, approached and told me that Egypt was now ready to sign an agreement with us. Full of joy, I took a plane and rushed to (Prime Minister) Golda Meir, to bring her the happy news. But Golda told me to stop everything immediately. She said to me: I have promised Henry Kissinger that if we arrive at an agreement, we shall transfer the whole matter to him, and he will tie up the loose ends."
And that is what happened, of course. The negotiations at km 101 were stopped, and Kissinger took control of the scene. It was he who reached the agreement, and the US was credited with it. The Egyptians became loyal followers of the US. The Israeli-Egyptian agreement was postponed for five years. It was achieved by Anwar Sadat, who planned his historic flight to Jerusalem behind the backs of the Americans.
Now the same may happen on the Syrian front. In the best case. In the worst case, the Americans will not reach an agreement with the Syrians, they will prevent us from achieving an agreement for ourselves, and thousands of Israelis, Syrians and Lebanese will pay the price in the next war.