While Israel’s Winograd Commission has certainly pulled no punches in excoriating the Israeli military and political leadership for their botched war in Lebanon last summer, there appears to be a massive lacuna in its conclusions. (I’m not even going to get into the question of cluster bombs and other military actions by Israel in that conflict that contravene international law.) Israel clearly went to war in haste without a considered plan, without weighing alternatives, without establishing clear objectives and without an exit strategy. That much Winograd was prepared to say bluntly. But what he doesn’t explain is why things played out in this way.
And here, I think, he’s avoiding the elephant in the room: the very clear sense, throughout the Lebanon misadventure, that Israel was coordinating its actions with Washington to an extent that the Bush Administration’s own decisions had a decisive impact on how Israel waged its campaign. Once Israel had launche its initial air raids, the U.S. quickly moved to define the objectives of the war in terms far more expansive than Israel had ever intended, using its diplomatic veto to block a ceasefire that the Israeli leadership had, in fact, been counting on when they began. I had previously written about how in order to truly understand the brutal botchup of Lebanon, the commission would have to probe the U.S. role in Israel’s decision making — the war was one in which I believe Israeli leaders ceded an unprecedented level of control over Israeli decisions to the United States.
It was clear, at the time, that the neophyte Olmert was outsourcing his decision-making to Condi Rice. I wrote at the time of the sense that Israel was waging a proxy war for the Bush Administration — a sense confirmed at the time by the hawkish dean of Israeli military correspondents, Ze’ev Schiff, who wrote at the height of the conflict:
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the figure leading the strategy of changing the situation in Lebanon, not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz. She has so far managed to withstand international pressure in favor of a cease-fire, even though this will allow Hezbollah to retain its status as a militia armed by Iran and Syria.
As such, she needs military cards, and unfortunately Israel has not succeeded to date in providing her with any. Besides bringing Hezbollah and Lebanon under fire, all of Israel’s military cards at this stage are in the form of two Lebanese villages near the border that have been captured by the IDF.
If the military cards Israel is holding do not improve with the continuation of the fighting, it will result in a diplomatic solution that will leave the Hezbollah rocket arsenal in southern Lebanon in its place. The diplomatic solution will necessarily be a reflection of the military realities on the ground.
The rhetoric of the Bush Administration about this war being the dawning of a “new Middle East” confirmed a sense that it had been appropriated for the deranged purposes of Rice and Bush’s giddy fantasies about transforming the region through “shock and awe.” The extent of U.S. influence was also made clear by Israeli media reports at the time of Olmert rushing out of critical security cabinet meetings to coordinate his strategy on the phone with Rice — hard to picture Ariel Sharon doing that, actually. But Schiff also makes clear that, plainly, the Israelis had no idea what they’d signed up for, which is why, as Winograd concluded, they waded into battle without a plan. (But Winograd doesn’t appear to want to ask why — presumably U.S.-Israeli relationship is a third-rail of Israeli politics that dare not be touched…) They had assumed they were launching retaliatory strikes to punish Hizballah for seizing two of its soldiers; then, suddenly, they were exected — by Washington — to militarily eliminate Hizballah.
And the neocons in and around the Administration spelled this out during the conflict, with some of Israel’s most aggressive supporters in Washington making clear what was expected of it in service to the American grand design. John Bolton’s comments, recently, about the pointlessness of Israel’s final ground offensive underscore this sense.
My friend Daniel Levy wrote a thoughtful analysis of Rice’s role in that conflict last month:
“Senior Israeli ministers are on record testifying to an investigating committee that when they voted in the cabinet to authorize the initial military strike they did not consider this to be the start of a prolonged war. Their working assumption was that diplomatic pressure would end the military conflict after 48 to 96 hours.
That did not happen – America prevented it, thereby making Israel a prisoner to accomplishing a mission that was never realistic. The delay in diplomacy did not change the substance of the deal eventually reached, it did, however, cause more death, destruction and loss of American prestige.”
A year ago, I wrote an op ed in Haaretz questioning whether it was in Israel’s best interests to hitch it’s wagon to a dangerously misguided Bush Administration’s wild and obviously doomed revolutionary schemes, because “it’s a safe bet that Assad, Nasrallah, Ali Khamenei and Hamas will be there long after Bush, Rice and their fantasy are wheeled off the stage.” In the piece, I wrote this of the Lebanon war:
When Olmert stumbled into Lebanon last summer, he may have been expecting Washington to play the role of the big brother who would drag him, still swinging, off Hassan Nasrallah, having demonstrated his “deterrent” power without getting himself into too much trouble. Instead, he found Washington impatiently egging him on, demanding that he destroy Nasrallah to prove a point to the Shiite leader’s own big brother, and holding back anyone else who tried to break up the fight. As neocon cheerleaders like Charles Krauthammer made plain, the administration was disappointed at Olmert’s wimpish performance.
The Winograd report, as far as I can tell from the reporting I’ve seen, has avoided asking these questions. And that’s unfortunate, not only because it fails to establish a complete picture of what shaped Olmert’s decision making — was he just a shlemiel, or was he Bush’s Shlemiel? — but because it avoids forcing Israelis to confront the consequences of the disastrous policies the Bush Administration has purused, often on its behalf, over the past eight years.