The Lebanon campaign

No way to go to war, says Ya’alon


In June 2005, Ariel Sharon replaced Moshe Ya’alon as Chief of Staff by his deputy, air force general, Dan Halutz, who was in charge of Israeli military assault on Lebanon.  On 14 September 2006, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz carried a fascinating interview with Ya’alon by Ari Shavit [1], in which he was fiercely critical of the conduct of the Lebanon campaign.


The title of the interview - No way to go to war - gives the flavour of it.  Ya’alon tells an astounding tale of a failure to implement the plan he had drawn up, when he was Chief of Staff to respond to an event like the one that occurred on 12 July 2006, when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, and of a growing delusion amongst the Israeli political leadership (nourished by Halutz, he says) that Hezbollah’s military capacity could be destroyed from the air.


Ya’alon may have an axe to grind as a commander who was replaced, but the tale he tells is consistent with other information that is in the public domain.  And, when it was put to him that, since he had been chief of staff or deputy for 5 out of the last 6 years, he must accept some responsibility for the debacle in Lebanon, he said he supported the establishment of a state commission of inquiry on the matter and proposed that he be the first witness.  “I have nothing to hide”, he said.


(Prime Minister Olmert has set up two commissions of inquiry, both reporting to the government.  The first, headed by former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, is supposed to investigate the military’s role in the war. Lipkin-Shahak was a senior adviser to Israel’s Defense Ministry during the war.  The second, a political commission, is to be headed by former Chief of Mossad Nahum Admoni, a close confidant of Olmert.  By contrast, a state commission of inquiry, which Olmert has refused to set up, is mandated by Israeli law and under the control of the Israeli Supreme Court. It is headed by a sitting or retired Supreme Court justice and has the power to subpoena witnesses and documents and its findings, including recommendations of resignation, are made public.)


Ya’alon was opposed to Sharon’s proposal to “disengage” from Gaza in August 2005, which cost him his job, and he is opposed to any “disengagement” from the West Bank.  But he isn’t dogmatically opposed to ceding “land for peace”, if the end result is the recognition of Israel’s right to exist.  Thus, for example, he revealed in the interview that in the summer of 2003 he suggested to Sharon that he enter into negotiations with Syria:


“I thought that the very existence of negotiations with Syria on the future of the Golan Heights would crack the northern alignment of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah and perhaps also cause its dismantlement. Sharon rejected my suggestion outright. He preferred the disengagement.”


Asked if he would be ready to cede the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria, he replied:


“I never sanctified any piece of ground. If a territorial concession will bring about true peace and full recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, I am not against that. However, even if we did not reach a land-for-peace agreement, the very fact of the renewal of the dialogue channel with Syria would have distanced it from Iran and would have weakened the northern alignment, which I defined as a strategic threat.”


As regards Hezbollah, Ya’alon takes it for granted that Hezbollah cannot be destroyed by Israeli military action alone.  As he explained in his interview:


“… it was clear to me that Hezbollah is a rooted phenomenon and will not be eradicated by military action. It was also clear to me that there is no unequivocal military solution against the rocket deployment. I therefore encouraged political activity, which in the end would lead to the disarming of Hezbollah as a result of an internal Lebanese process, and concurrently I drew up a military plan intended to address a scenario of a Hezbollah offensive that would oblige us to deal with the organization militarily.”


The plan was to make a military response of limited duration and seize the opportunity to get the US and others to apply political pressure with a view to getting Hezbollah disarmed.  As he explained the plan’s basic assumptions were:


“That the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] must act in a way that would set in motion a political process that would lead to the disarming of Hezbollah, the removal of the Iranians from Lebanon and perhaps also the imposition of sanctions on Syria and Iran. In a scenario of the abduction of soldiers, exactly as occurred on July 12, the IDF was supposed to respond with an aerial attack and the mobilization of reserve divisions, which would act as a threat to the Syrians and to Hezbollah and would encourage Lebanon and the international community to take action to achieve the desired goal.”




“If the threat itself did not achieve the goal, a ground move would have begun within a few days aimed primarily at seizing dominant terrain as far as the Litani River and the Nabatiya plateau. The ground entry was supposed to be carried out speedily, for an allotted time, without the use of tanks and without entering houses or built-up areas. Because of our awareness of the anti-tank missile problem and our awareness of the bunkers and of the fact that the routes are mined, the intention was to activate the IDF in guerrilla modalities. That was the operational idea, that was the plan and that is how the forces were trained.”


A dominating theme in Ya’alon’s criticism is that in the ground assault Israeli soldiers’ lives were squandered by tactics that left them vulnerable to Hezbollah anti-tank missiles.


Asked why the plan was not implemented, he replied:


“I don’t know. That is one of the questions that the state commission of inquiry will have to investigate. In my opinion, the aerial offensive was correct. The air force delivered the goods. In a few areas it even provided favorable surprises. But the activation of the ground forces was a catastrophe. There was no defined goal. There was no required achievement. They jumped from one idea to the next and introduced new missions all the time without any logic.”


Asked when he recognised that something had gone wrong, he said:


“At the end of the first week. Until then things were conducted reasonably well. I was critical of the fact that the reserves were not mobilized, but I understood more or less what the goal was. But then, instead of plucking the political fruits of the aerial offensive, they continued to use force. They over-used force. And instead of coordinating with the Americans for them to stop us when the operation was at its height, and setting in motion a political process to disarm Hezbollah, we asked the Americans for more time. We let the Americans think that we have some sort of gimmick that will vanquish Hezbollah militarily. I knew there was no such gimmick. I knew the whole logic of the operation was that it be limited in time and not be extended.”


This removes any illusion that the US diplomatic activity was geared to stopping the conflict and saving lives.  Clearly, it was tailored to suit Israeli military requirements.


Asked if he had tried to warn the political and military leadership, he replied:


“… I discovered that the political level had the feeling - which was nourished by the chief of staff - that the matter could be wrapped up from the air. And when it turned out that the aerial move was not going to deliver the goods it was never meant to deliver in the first place, frustration set in. A desperate search began for some kind of move that would produce some sort of feeling of victory. The delusory idea of a one-kilometer ground move developed.”


Ya’alon reserves his harshest criticism for the final Israeli ground attack, which was launched on 11 August 2006 as the Security Council was about to pass resolution 1501.  In the next 2 days until the ceasefire on the morning of 14 August 2006, Hezbollah killed 33 Israeli military personnel, over a quarter of Israel’s military losses in the whole conflict.  For an account of this, see Three terrible days by Nehemia Shtrasler (Haaretz, 18 August 2006, [2]).


The conversation on this went as follows:


Q  And the final ground move that ended the war?


“That was a spin move. It had no substantive security-political goal, only a spin goal. It was meant to supply the missing victory picture. You don't do that. You don't send soldiers to carry out a futile mission after the political outcome has already been set. I consider that corrupt.”


Q  You are saying a very serious thing. Thirty-three soldiers were killed in that operation. Were they killed to achieve a spin?


“Yes. And that is why people have to resign. For that you don’t even need a commission of inquiry. Whoever made that decision has to assume responsibility and resign.”


Q  Does the prime minister have to resign?


“Yes. He can’t say he did not know. …”


Q  Must the chief of staff resign?


“Yes. He should have resigned immediately after the conclusion of the campaign.” 



David Morrison

28 September 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review