JERUSALEM - In a dramatic move, surprising in its timing, though inevitable, the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Danny Halutz, the first Air Force man to rise to supreme command, chose to step down after less than two years in office. He thus assumed responsibility for the failure to achieve a clear-cut military victory in last summer's Lebanon War.
Before reaching his decision, Halutz patiently waited for the completion of an extensive and penetrating process of introspection and lesson-learning, which involved the work of some forty inspection teams, one of which looked into his own performance and that of the General Staff during the war. Actually, that team decided that the mistakes made did not warrant Halutz's removal.
Nonetheless, there has been speculation in recent days that Halutz chose to preempt the findings of another investigating body, Judge Vinograd's Commission, which is presently investigating the overall conduct of the war. It is rumored that the commission is preparing a highly critical interim report.
Perhaps Halutz may have been driven by a broader and nobler consideration: the need for the IDF to be led, as the first post-war stage ended and the prospects of future conflict loomed large again, by a figure less tainted by the crisis of confidence which emerged at the beginning of the war.
What lead to Halutz's short tenure? It is the result of three interconnected failures:
First, the serious problems of readiness which emerged within the IDF ground forces, and particularly in the reserve component had to be examined. Although Halutz cannot be held responsible for the general state of affairs, which he inherited after years of neglect, his fault lies in being slow to recognize that this situation would affect the IDF's timetable, and thus the actual point for the crucial decision on a full-scale ground campaign (always a tough question, as it was for the U.S. Centcom commanders in 1991).
This relates to the broader problem of the failure to focus, in time, on the "Katyusha Zone" as the key to the strategic outcome of the war. Brilliant success was achieved in destroying, in the first 24 hours, Hezbollah's long-range missile array in the Beirut area. Pitched battles were fought, as of the second week, in the area immediately adjoining the border, but the area north of the border zone, and south of the Litani river, remained firmly in Hezbollah's hands, and served as a platform for the constant rain of destruction upon the population of Israel's northern towns and villages, until the very late stages of the five-week war.
At the core of the debacle, therefore, lies a question long debated within the IDF's ranks: can such a situation - the Katyusha campaign, which in itself was well anticipated, and its scope was often openly declared in advance by Hezbollah - be dealt with entirely, or even primarily, from the air. Halutz, and apparently Amos Yadlin, director of Israeli Military Intelligence, as air force men, tended to believe it could be. As it turned out, it could not, and therein lies the blunder which brought Halutz down.
In all likelihood, he will not be the last to go. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, besieged within his own party, has so far shown no inclination to step down, but in public, and even in moral terms, Halutz' example has left him cornered.
Moreover, in political terms, if he hangs on to his present office, the battle for the Labor party leadership will become a battle for the Defense portfolio, and the party voters will prefer experienced hands on the helm like Ehud Barak, or Ami Ayalon. Peretz would do well, under this logic, to take Prime Minister Olmert's offer of an enhanced Ministry of Welfare, and leave his mark on issues he is well qualified to deal with.
Halutz' departure brought about demonstrations of joy in Syria, and in parts of Lebanon held by Hezbollah - giving them a retroactive "proof" that it is they who "won" after all. Yet it is interesting to note that there was a sharp polemical side to these outbursts, directed not at Israel but at the "other Arabs", pro-American or pro-stability or just plain frightened Sunnis fearing the rise of a powerful Shi'a state, Iran.
To the revolutionaries, and the Syrians, one man holds all power - and the fall of one man signifies the fall of a system. But their rivals in the Arab world are the countries which made the first steps towards becoming dawlat mu'asasat, a State based upon Institutions, rather than dawlat za'amah, a State based upon the Leadership Concept. To them, it should be easy to recognize in Israel a country where the departure of one individual like Halutz, powerful and talented as he may be, does not bring down the country. On the contrary, it serves to demonstrate the nation's resilience.
Eran Lerman is director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee.