Evaluating Israel’s Errors
The Winograd Commission was meant to evaluate Israel’s failings in the Second Lebanon War. Its final report did expose some head-shaking mistakes at the highest levels of the Israeli government and military.
But it did more. The report—and the reaction it garnered from politicians and press—also revealed dangerously diseased thinking among the Israeli elite that remains to this day.
While urging action to correct the mistakes made, this report exposed why the most important corrective actions will never be taken by this government.
That summer 2006 war was irreversibly devastating to Israel. It started when Hezbollah raided Israel, kidnapped two soldiers and killed eight others, then retreated to fortified positions in southern Lebanon and began a well-planned missile assault. Thirty-four days and 4,000 rockets later, a UN-imposed ceasefire quieted the landscape, cementing an achievement for this terrorist organization historically unique among all of Israel’s enemies. In Israel’s longest war since the War of Independence in 1948, Hezbollah had managed to survive.
The Jewish state’s first military defeat in its 60-year history exposed to all of Israel’s enemies just how weak the nation was. Its hard-earned aura of invincibility dissipated.
What caused the failure? Let us count the ways.
First is the fact that Hezbollah was bunkered down in Lebanon to begin with. The Winograd Commission rightly traced the war back to its roots: Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. Israel evacuated to improve the prospects of peace, assuming the Lebanese Army would fill the vacuum it created. Bad assumption. Instead, Hezbollah filled it, funded and trained by Iran and Syria.
This history supplies a huge lesson—and sadly, Israel has yet to learn it: Vacating territory and expecting other people to keep terrorists out is a disaster. Gaza teaches the same painful message. Still, Israeli leaders talk about this strategy as if it might work if only they give it a try.
Now, however, they’re running out of territory to retreat from. The West Bank and Jerusalem head the list.
Once Hezbollah initiated the conflict, Winograd confirms, mistakes proliferated. The report paints a disturbing picture of leaders out of their depth, making hasty, misinformed and ill-advised decisions.
Winograd’s interim report, issued last April and which the final report endorses, made a point worth considering. After Hezbollah’s provocation, Israeli leaders quickly decided upon a strong military response. They launched a vigorous but flawed air campaign that 1) failed to dislodge Hezbollah’s entrenchments or even slow the rain of rockets into northern Israel, and 2) generated a lot of globally unpopular footage of bombed-out Lebanese population centers. The worst of all possible outcomes.
The Winograd report condemned the government for hastily choosing force and failing to consider “the whole range of options.” By “whole range,” it meant all of those options involving less force or no force—the assumption being that Israel’s response was too strong and that it unnecessarily escalated the conflict. The report called the government’s declared goals “too ambitious.” Then, to make matters worse, Israeli leaders didn’t give the military sufficient tools to complete those declared goals.
Consider this. The trouble of “too ambitious” war aims hampered by inadequate means to fulfill them also plagues the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. The real problem, however, is not the gap between war-making requirements and war-making capability. It is the gap between what these fundamentally pacifist nations are willing to do in pursuit of victory, and what victory actually requires. Political correctness, “just war theory,” a desire to avoid the criticism of the international community—these factors blunt the instruments of war and put true victory out of reach.
Winograd wisdom suggests that the answer, when an entity like Hezbollah declares war, is to simply dial back the goals. Don’t be “too ambitious.”
The truth of the matter—completely ignored during the war and even to this day—is that Hezbollah was not the true enemy. To call any goal of striking Hezbollah and claiming victory “too ambitious” overlooks the reality that hostile enemy nations were equipping and directing that terrorist group. Those nations were who really declared war on Israel.
In the declassified public report at least, Winograd doesn’t once mention Iran. Neither does it mention Syria.
In that way, the report mirrors the Israeli war itself. It was carried out with perfect myopia, treating Hezbollah as an independent organization unconnected to any forces outside southern Lebanon.
Naturally, there were compelling reasons for this choice: namely, that Israel is deathly afraid and utterly lacks the will to wage a war with Iran.
Tehran’s use of Hezbollah as a proxy offered Israel the pretext it needed to avoid that prospect. But proof that Iran was behind Hezbollah was plenteous. Teams of its Revolutionary Guard Corps had regularly visited to train them; Iran had flooded southern Lebanon with rockets and missiles; the day before the war began, a top Hezbollah official met the head of Syrian military intelligence and the Iranian national security adviser in Damascus; the timing of the attack took UN pressure off Iran for its nuclear program; Guard Corps numbers swelled after the war started; an Iranian-operated missile struck an Israeli Navy missile boat—and so on. Yet aside from a few whiny remarks from U.S. officials, no one held Iran accountable for starting a war.
And to this day, after 17 months of reflection, the committee tasked with assessing the reasons for Israel’s failures ignores Iran and blames the government for being “too ambitious” in its war goals.
As if to serve as an exclamation mark on this point, Tehran Times, which bills itself as Iran’s “leading international daily,” drew these conclusions from the report: “From a regional perspective, the Winograd Commission’s final report underlines the power of guerilla warfare in the struggle against the Zionist army.
“The report proved that Israel’s formidable war machine is extremely vulnerable to unconventional, guerilla and protracted warfare, a fact which has been ignored by the region’s military analysts. … Therefore, when confronting such an army, conventional warfare should be avoided and asymmetrical warfare strategies should be employed to exhaust it physically and psychologically.”
Given the weakened state Israel finds itself in today, it is hard to argue against the logic in those chilling words.
In the committee’s view, once Israel committed to using force it had two main options: deal a quick, painful blow to Hezbollah, or completely reshape southern Lebanon, “cleaning” it of Hezbollah’s infrastructure. Astoundingly, Israel never made the choice, and thus it lacked a cohesive war plan from the beginning. As it waffled, precious time passed, and the window for effectively carrying out either option closed.
Decision-makers were ill-informed and unqualified. Soldiers were ill-prepared. “Serious failings and flaws” plagued strategic thinking and planning by political and military leaders, the report says. “Severe failings and flaws” hampered defense of Israeli civilians.
Finally, Israel felt checkmated and put its faith in the international community to step in and bring the mess to a close.
Then, it was as the cease-fire was about to descend that Israel finally got around to staging a ground offensive. The timing was so clumsy that the quickly curtailed offensive served only to increase Israelis’ frustration and discouragement as 33 of their soldiers died without purpose.
“The overall image of the war was a result of a mixture of flawed conduct of the political and the military echelons and the interface between them, of flawed performance by the idf, and especially the ground forces, and of deficient Israeli preparedness,” the English summary of the report says. “At the end of the day, Israel did not gain a political achievement because of military successes; rather, it relied on a political agreement … [that] permitted it to stop a war which it had failed to win.” Thus, an ignominious end to a terribly executed war.
Hindsight confirms what events at the time already made plain enough: that subcontracting southern Lebanon to the United Nations was a debacle for Israel. International forces have done nothing to prevent Iran and Syria from rearming Hezbollah to levels greater than before the 2006 war—but they do prevent Israel from intervening. Another, perhaps even greater war appears imminent.
Ehud Olmert, however, seems safe—at least temporarily. Why? Caroline Glick noted that after Winograd’s interim report directly assigned blame to three individuals—Olmert, Amir Peretz (then defense minister), and Dan Halutz, the idf chief of staff—two of them, Peretz and Halutz, were forced to resign. “But Olmert held on and quietly conspired against his own committee,” she wrote, speaking of the fact that Olmert had commissioned the group to begin with. “With Olmert’s backing, the idf’s solicitor-general Col. Orna David repeatedly petitioned the Supreme Court and secured rulings prohibiting the Winograd Committee from recommending that Olmert or anyone else be compelled to resign for their dereliction of duty.”
Thus, it was no surprise that the final report took a circumspect approach toward the prime minister.
Still, the liberal press focused heavily the final report not singling out Olmert for blame, alleviating the pressure on him to step down.
Meanwhile, despite threats of departing Olmert’s coalition government and splintering his required majority in the Knesset, to this point other members of the government haven’t moved a muscle. Despite Ehud Olmert’s ruinous failures in that war and ever since, leading Israelis have simply closed ranks around him to protect him.
Why? Because if his coalition government falls apart, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes over.
In essence, Israel’s future sits poised between two options. Olmert wants to achieve peace through compromise. Netanyahu advocates a more confrontational approach toward terrorist enemies.
Liberal politicians, supported by liberal media—and at odds with much of the Israeli public—are firmly backing the first option.
This is dogged commitment to a rank lie. Every time the “peace process” has been pursued, it has produced disaster. In fact, it is biblically prophesied to be Israel’s undoing. Read our booklet Jerusalem in Prophecy to understand why.
But the inescapable reality, at this late stage, is that even a change to a Netanyahu government would not be sufficient to undo the damage that has been progressively done to the State of Israel over the 15 years since Oslo.
Israel desperately needs to put its hope in something more trustworthy.