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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

September 2006

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The author assesses the IDF's performance in the recent conflict with Hezbollah and, as might be expected, notes Israel's less-than-overwhelming performance. Where David Jones makes a contribution to strategic thought is in his detailed points on just what the IDF would have to do to retrieve its erstwhile unbeatable reputation.- Ed.

Israel made a fundamental error with its invasion of Lebanon: It picked a fight and lost it.

Deliberately selecting a maximum response to a painful, albeit limited provocation (Hezbollah's raid and capture of two Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers), after a month of fighting, Israel's primary accomplishment was to have substantially damaged the Lebanese infrastructure, weakened the Lebanese government, and enhanced Hezbollah's reputation. Without recovering its captured soldiers. This is not a victory; it is barely a draw.

To be sure, Israel was not defeated in any direct military definition of the term; however, when the biggest, baddest bear in the woods gets nibbled (not to death but to distraction) by ducks, it can hardly be labeled a victory. And not the most adroit spin meisters in Tel Aviv can turn these lemons into lemonade. So why did this happen and what happens next?

First, Some Overview. Historically, over time, the best military establishments become trapped in the myths of their own invincibility. It is an insidious, all but inevitable process. They are good; indeed, very, very good and have beaten all comers--repeatedly. It is very hard to justify learning new tricks when the old tricks have been uniformly successful. Improvements are made, but they are at the margins, and tactics and training are routinized. New equipment is very expensive and other societal priorities impinge. So little by little, your personnel become complacent; they are not your best and brightest; they don't train as hard; they are dismissive of their opposition; they assume that they can bring their "B game" to the field and still mop the boards with any opponent. And, it appears as if Israel, particularly its reservists, bought into the Minuteman myth of mounting a Merkava tank and rushing into (always victorious) battle.

On the other side, the opposition always focuses on "the best." During the Cold War, the United States trained against Soviet forces (and vice versa): neither military prepared for Vietnam or Afghanistan before being hip-deep in these conflicts. For its part, Hezbollah wasn't thinking of fighting the Lebanese army; it wasn't concerned about Hamas/Fatah; it wasn't worried about the Syrians. It has only one enemy: Israel. So from 2000 forward, it bent its thinking to attempt to determine how to maximize its strengths and deflect Israel-Robo-Cop's strengths.

It takes no special defense attaché-level insight to conclude that Hezbollah succeeded in many categories where Israel did not

• Hezbollah was extensively prepared with strongpoint entrenchments throughout south Lebanon manned by reasonably well trained and equipped fighters. Perhaps more important, they were motivated to stand and fight, presumably to the death, and not run at the first encounter with the IDF.
• Hezbollah's preparation, weaponry, and tactics surprised the IDF. Whether it was really surprise, inadequate training, or Iranian-supplied electronics, the successful Hezbollah strike against an Israeli naval vessel with an anti-ship cruise missile was shocking.
• Hezbollah not only had a large and varied supply of missiles, but was able to disperse them extensively and maintain heavy bombardments (100-plus fired on any given day) in a manner that appeared to disrupt Israeli civilian life. The fact that by some estimates 4,000 rockets caused only approximately forty deaths suggests that the real casualties were psychological and political. For their part, although one can assume that Israeli counter-battery and intelligence operations located and destroyed a substantial percentage of the Hezbollah rocket arsenal, it didn't "show" since the attacks continued without interruption.
• The IDF proved able to reduce Hezbollah resistance only with casualties at levels it was not willing to accept. Hezbollah fortifications proved sufficiently resistant to high tech bombing and artillery fire to make root-'em-out infantry attacks the only option. Although Israel claims (probably accurately) to have inflicted heavy casualties on Hezbollah, we do not know and must assume that Hezbollah can replace both fighters and weaponry at least in the medium term.
• The whining by Israeli reservists was disconcerting. Initially enthusiastic, even highly so, about the reason for the war, nevertheless, as soon as the going got tough the reservists' claxons of complaint became deafening. Listening to the laments over reported shortcomings in weapons and logistics made a historian wonder what those who still remember Israel's desperate struggles for national survival in 1948 when armed with the equivalent of flyswatters would have to say to their descendants.
• Hezbollah media (combined with Israeli targeting errors) conveyed the public and international impression that Goliath was monster mashing through Lebanese tulips. Painful Israeli casualties were subsumed by the larger (and more poignant) Lebanese civilian losses. To be sure, an honest assessment would conclude that Israel created—inadvertently—as few civilian casualties as possible, while Hezbollah generated—deliberately—as many as it could. But in a fight between underdog and overdog, restraint by the overdog doesn't score points.

    Current Circumstances.
    The efforts to deploy the Lebanese army, arrange for a UN multinational force, and start rehabilitation are all in daily flux. Supposedly speed was to be the hallmark; delay has been the reality. Meanwhile, the media reports that Hezbollah has seized the initiative in dispensing services and providing assistance. If there are those in Lebanon (or elsewhere in the Middle East) who blame Hezbollah for igniting the fight, they appear to be very quiet.

    For their part, the IDF is supposedly withdrawing as Lebanese/U.N. forces deploy— but the reality is that the IDF is operating as it desires — including raids to hit residual Hezbollah forces.

    This is not peace; it isn't even a truce; it is a reloading break.

    Next Round.
    The IDF's punctured invincibility balloon must be re-inflated. Israel simply cannot afford to have Hezbollah strutting about claiming that they bested the IDF. Not only does such an impression encourage others to take a swat at you, but your own forces start to backbite and finger point in a manner almost as dangerous to morale as having been actually defeated. Such has already begun in spades —with a segment of reservists offering vituperative criticism and the Olmert government wiggling (successfully) to avoid an independent assessment of the fighting, at least for now. What may best save the current government is an appreciation by the Opposition that the blame game is too dangerous to play at present.

    Historically, Israeli reaction to military provocation has been described as extracting "an eye for a tooth." This round of fighting was closer to a tooth for a tooth regarding the direct combatants, with those suffering the real losses being the Lebanese government, infrastructure, and economy. Consequently, we can anticipate that Israel will take an early opportunity to demonstrate that it has learned its lessons.

    This conclusion assumes that:

    (1) The Lebanese army's feckless qualities will persist. It has shown neither willingness nor ability to control Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the past. Indeed, substantial elements of the military and the government are either Hezbollah members or sympathizers, and they have said they are not in the disarming business.
    (2) The UN force, assuming it is constituted and deployed before Christmas, is the farce that it has been in the past.

    Neither force seems up to the challenge of disarming Hezbollah in the South (the Lebanese government has indicated that it doesn't intend to do so) —and that begs the question as to why Hezbollah would disarm itself. Since it will not, the question is not whether there will be a next round of fighting, but when and at whose volition.

    Some "Must Do's" for Israel
    • Better Intelligence. Israel simply must obtain better information on Hezbollah arsenals, communications, defenses, and political structure. The media have conveyed the impression that the IDF was out-thought by Hezbollah's defensive tactics and that its high tech weaponry had been circumvented by predictable moves such as fiber optics communications, which impeded Government of Israel (GOI) electronic intercepts. It may be that every Hezbollah activist has a Katyusha rocket in his closet, but if that is the case, the GOI must know the locations of those closets.

    • Better Training. If the reserves are the vital part of the IDF total force that they are touted as being, they must be better prepared for the privation and psychological battering of combat. Yes, there are always possible improvements in logistics and equipment, but the baseline for combat success remains leadership and morale, which are particularly challenging to inculcate and sustain for reservists. As a result, there must be improved organizational training for the massive reserve call up that will be required for a comprehensive response to Hezbollah.

    • Better Tactics. Again, the media gave the impression that Hezbollah had gone to school on the IDF. Israeli tactics, once the epitome of innovation and surprise (recall the raid on Entebbe or the attack on the Osirak nuclear facility), did not demonstrate particular creativity in addressing Hezbollah defensive strong points. Perhaps it is time to return to napalm, which combined with fuel-air explosives, would solve such bunkers. This is nasty war; however, the stakes have escalated and "nice" didn't do the trick.

    Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has become an Osama bin-Laden equivalent, less important in his person than in his persona, but still symbolically critical. And so far as killing Nasrallah (an implicitly announced Israeli objective) is concerned, one might anticipate using bunker buster bombs (reportedly requested from the U. S. Government) against the Iranian embassy, where he reportedly took refuge during the July-August fighting. Yes, a deliberate strike against an embassy would be unprecedented; however, Iran and Israel are technically at war, and Tehran does not recognize Tel Aviv, If Israel is going to be "hung," it may well prefer to be hung as a goat.

    • An All-Out Effort. That which was regarded as "solved" after 2000--Israel's relations with Lebanon has unraveled. In some respects, it is just another shard in the steady disintegration of what was the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord. The upheaval in Lebanon is touted as "teaching" the lesson that land cannot be traded for security, putting paid to the Israeli commitment to withdraw unilaterally from larger swaths of the West Bank occupied territories. Other than directed killings against Hamas targets of opportunity, Israel's attention will be focused on Lebanon/Hezbollah until a new military balance is installed.

    More important to this outcome than equipment, tactics, or other military mechanics will be GOI recognition that the next one "counts." Israel in general and the IDF in particular must bring their "A game" to the field and devote the time and effort necessary to counter current Hezbollah tactics. "Time and effort" mean expense and loss, both in preparation and in execution. When these are complete, any excuse will suffice for an attack. At the end of the next round, however, Hezbollah must be prostrate —or Israel is in existential peril.


    David T. Jones, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, has written extensively over the years for U.S. and Canadian publications. He has contributed frequently to this journal, especially in the field of the Canadian political scene.

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