For Israel, lessons learned from 2006, but old pitfalls

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 07-Jan-09 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli soldiers mourn the deaths of at least four fellow soldiers, killed by shells from their own tanks.

JERUSALEM: This time, Israeli military commanders are leading from the front, not trying to direct the infantry from television screens. This time, the military has clear plans, in stages, drawn up with a year's preparation. This time there is no illusion about winning a war only from the air. This time, the military chief of staff has kept his silence in public, all cellphones have been confiscated from Israeli soldiers and the international press has been kept out of the battlefield.

In these and many other ways, Israel is applying the lessons it learned from its failed 2006 war against Hezbollah in northern Lebanon to its current war against Hamas in Gaza. But Israel's failure in Lebanon also stemmed from a political and diplomatic inability to decide on clear objectives for the outcome of the war, and here the lessons of Lebanon have been not so well applied, according to senior Israeli military officials and political analysts.

And then there are the sudden events that can throw off so many careful calculations and come to symbolize the horrors of war — like the deaths of civilians from Israeli munitions in Qana, Lebanon, both in 1996 and 2006, and the reports on Tuesday evening of more than 30 civilians, including children, killed as they tried to shelter in a United Nations school in northern Gaza. While accounts of exactly what happened were unclear on Tuesday night, with Israeli officials suggesting that the school was used to fire mortars and that there may have been a secondary explosion, the deaths will inevitably turn stomachs all over the world and increase pressure on Israel for an early cease-fire.

"Everyone is very conscious of doing things differently from 2006," said Mark Heller, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, citing the postwar investigations carried out by the military itself and by the Winograd Commission, which harshly criticized both the political and military leaders of the time for poor preparation and performance.

After the war against Hezbollah, both the chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, a former air force commander, and the defense minister, Amir Peretz, a former labor union leader, resigned. Their replacements — General Gabi Ashkenazi, an infantryman, and Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff and combat hero — have done much to improve the Israeli military and restore public confidence in its skills.

On the political side, too, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ensured that the cabinet had a much fuller discussion of the proposed campaign in Gaza, with alternative options at least explored in some detail, before being asked to vote for war. "They did more systematic staff work, of alternatives and implications, and tried to do some diplomatic groundwork," Heller said.

And Olmert has been far more careful this time to state ambiguous and modest goals for the war, unlike his extravagant pledge two years ago to destroy Hezbollah.

But the ambiguity is also a function of political disagreement and confusion among Israeli leaders, many argue, which promotes poor coordination of military action and diplomatic aims. And it remains far from clear how to decide when to end the war, and what would constitute victory.

Israel has so far failed to decide what its ultimate goals are for this conflict, said Giora Eiland, a former army general and a former head of Israel's weak National Security Council. "Either we want to achieve a sustainable arrangement, with a lasting cease-fire and a stop to arms smuggling from Egypt, or we want to bring about a collapse of the Hamas government," he said. "These lead to very different actions on all fronts, but the answer is not very clear. There is disagreement at the moment in the troika" — Olmert, Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Both Livni and Barak want to succeed Olmert, who is stepping down, in elections scheduled for next month. The Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has limited himself to general statements of support for the war, is leading the opinion polls.

"There is a leadership issue," said Yossi Alpher, a co-editor of, a Web-based Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. "Olmert is discredited. Barak is considered a strategic genius but makes simple, fatal mistakes, and Livni is untried. And they quite openly don't get along."

There have been many improvements since 2006, especially on the military side, "but the linkage between the political level and the military level is less improved," Eiland said. "There is no political system to make strategic assessments and provide alternative options and implement them. And because we can't decide on the right package of means and goals, there's a certain confusion about our message to others."

A senior Israeli military officer, now in the reserves, said that on the political level, "the changes are not so impressive." The military, he said, "is still the center of strategic thinking."

On the military side, however, he said, there has been a big improvement in the coordination of ground and air forces, in clearer instructions to military units and in the way fresh intelligence is communicated to soldiers. The reserves have had far more training in combat tactics aimed at Gaza, have better equipment and were called up early.

"Commanders have not had their instructions changed seven times a day," the military officer said. Further, the "home front" defense against rockets has been improved and there has been a much stronger effort to control the message and mask Israeli intentions.

To that end, the cellphones of soldiers were confiscated; commanders were banned from talking to reporters, even their friends; the international press corps has been kept out of Gaza; and even the close circle of senior Israeli political and defense correspondents have been getting far less access than before to decision makers, said Aluf Benn, a senior correspondent with the daily Haaretz.

"We get briefings, but they're more like talking points," Benn said.

The senior military officer said, "The chief of staff is not talking in public, and the special press know what they need to know, but the army is not speaking."

Most important, the army knew a nasty war in Gaza was likely to come, unlike the surprise of the war with Hezbollah. Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli major general, now in the reserves, who ran the research and assessment branch of Israeli military intelligence, said that Israeli intelligence had never lost its contacts in Gaza, as it had in southern Lebanon.

"To leave Gaza you have to go through Israel," he said, and numerous Gazans were recruited as intelligence sources. Gaza uses the Israeli shekel, and nearly all imports and exports go through Israel, too. "All this helps keep the network alive in Gaza," he said, which helped the accuracy of the early air campaign.

What matters most, Amidror said, are three changes: coordination between the infantry and the air force; having commanders on the ground with a clear mission and flexibility to achieve it; and methods to keep Hamas in the fog of war, which includes disinformation and impediments to real-time press coverage on the ground.

"The less Hamas understands, the better," he said.

The army and government have also made it clear that civilians will die in this war, because of the way Hamas has chosen to fight it from within the densely populated urban centers of Gaza. But events like the deaths of schoolchildren are harder to swallow.

"It was clear from the start in this operation that there could be a Qana, given how Hamas has chosen to fight, and it could seriously derail Israeli operational plans," Alpher said. "A Qana is not just a function of the numbers of civilians killed, but also a function of how the Israeli population reacts, how the Israeli leadership deals with it and how the international community responds, and it's too early to say."