This is an unsettled time in Israeli politics. Within a day or two after President George W. Bush’s visit in Israel comes to its ceremonial end on January 9, the Israeli political arena will once again be rife with speculation about the impending public presentation of the final report of the Winograd Commission (sometime during the next few weeks). A growing sense of unease already surrounds the prime minister; some of his recent public statements—including his far-reaching assessments of what the world expects Israel to concede—should perhaps be read against this background. It is being muttered, in broad circles, that even the timing of the first presidential visit since Bush took office may well be linked to Ehud Olmert’s need for political momentum to glide through the turbulent aftermath of the Winograd Report. Much may come to depend upon the position taken by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who promised, when he contended a year ago for the leadership of the Labor Party, to break up the partnership once the report came out, but seems clearly unwilling to do so now.
What will the Winograd Commission say? It is safe to assume that at the personal and political levels—which often, in the dense Israeli public discourse, trump all other considerations—it will firmly answer one question and sidestep another. It is bound to find fault, grievously so, with Olmert’s conduct of the Second Lebanon War, and in particular, the hesitant, half-hearted, and ultimately half-baked manner in which the ground campaign was first delayed and then launched, with painful and perhaps unnecessary loss of life. The chief of staff and the minister of defense at the time—Dan Halutz and Amir Peretz—have both left their posts: The pressure on Olmert to follow them is bound to mount. But the commission, to judge by various leaks as well as by the position it took in the interim report of last year, will not take it upon itself to determine whether the prime minister is unfit for his office. There are other considerations upon which the overall performance of national leaders is judged—not least among them, when it comes to Olmert, “the economy, stupid”—and thus his personal fate will be left to the dynamics of the political arena.
At the national security level, meanwhile, the commission may find it difficult to offer decisive judgments, for the simple reason that, on key issues, some eighteen months after the war we still do not know the answers: We do not even know who really won. The situation in Lebanon remains dangerously indeterminate, so much so that the president of France, the ever-active Nicolas Sarkozy, loudly blasted the Syrian regime during his visit in Egypt and declared that there will be no further dialogue with Bashar al-Assad until he lets Lebanon choose a new president without murderous interference in its internal affairs. From an Israeli point of view, this leaves us with four painful unanswered questions:
- Did the 2006 war change the balance of power? The basic statistics and patterns on the ground suggest that it did not—or worse, may have enabled Hezbollah to emerge stronger and better equipped. No serious action was taken to stem the flow of Katyushas and anti-tank weapons from Syria, in blatant breach of UNSCR 1701, and Hassan Nasrallah may have many more of these under his command than he did in June 2006; the data are less certain when it comes to long-range capabilities, which depend on supply routes from Iran. Moreover, even the loss of the organization’s freedom of movement right up to the Israeli border may be little more than an optical illusion: They do not wear their uniforms or carry guns during daytime, but they are there; and north of the Litani River, a formidable line of Hezbollah defenses has been built, ignoring the needs and property rights of the local population (let alone the frivolous notion that these are matters for the national authority, not political parties and Iranian agents, to deal with). Sadly, the Lebanese military on the ground remains complicit with Hezbollah. And yet there is also the other side of the ledger: the anger of many Lebanese about the way their country was used; the undercurrents of tension in the Hezbollah-Syrian-Iranian triangle; and most significantly, the indication that Israeli deterrence was, indeed, enhanced. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since the war. Neither Israeli overflights into Lebanese airspace nor the alleged events of September 6, 2007, in Syria have tempted Hezbollah to respond.
- Is the international presence useful? The balance sheet is blotted by indications that the European forces in Lebanon were crudely threatened by Hezbollah and the Syrians, in rather unsubtle terms, and as a result, were not inclined to pursue fully the robust mandate suggested by UNSCR 1701 (which the Israeli government trumpeted, at the time, as a major achievement of the war). Moreover, almost all actions by UNIFIL need to be coordinated with the Lebanese Army, which immediately passes the information on to Hezbollah. Still, there are also indications that even under these circumstances, UNIFIL tries hard to carry out its mission; and Israel, eager to build upon the significant thaw in its relations with Europe, does not seek to quarrel with the participating nations or with the UN command structure, at this time.
- Should we preempt next time? The lessons of 2006, presumably, taught us that we should never have allowed Hezbollah to build up its forces right on our border, as it did with impunity since May 2000. But this is easier said than done. A similar dilemma is brewing on the Gaza border—with Hamas knowingly emulating the Lebanese model; but this only brings into focus the terrible choices involved in preemption when the loss of many soldiers’ lives may be at stake. True, it is the duty of soldiers to put their lives on the line (as almost all Israeli soldiers will tell you) when it comes to defending the right of civilians in Sderot to live in security, but this does not make it any easier on the decision-makers when they look down the road and foresee another “Four Mothers” movement facing them, as happened before the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
- What price should we pay to bring our abducted soldiers home? The cruel dilemma posed by Hezbollah, with the painful memory of the unknown fate of Ron Arad (more than twenty years after he was taken prisoner) is now being repeated on both fronts. Little is known about the negotiations with Nasrallah, quietly conducted by German go-betweens. A noisier drama is unfolding, more publicly than ever, as regards the release of Gil’ad Shalit: Hamas demands a long list of terrorists, some of them directly involved in attacks on Israelis (and the outright murder of Palestinian “collaborators”). In response, and in obvious preparation for a deal, Prime Minister Olmert has assigned a Cabinet committee to look into the prospect of “softening” the existing criteria (which forbid the release of terrorists “with blood on their hands”). The head of the General Security Service (Shin Bet), Yuval Diskin, has registered his objections, and the debate has been extended, almost pathetically, into the public domain—a reminder, as it is, of the unenviable dilemmas of Israeli decision-makers.
If a deal with Hamas is cut and Shalit comes home later this month, this would help Olmert even further in his struggle to survive. In broader terms, however, the ultimate question will not be the legacy of 2006, but the prospects for the future: With the rising influence of Iran lurking behind these dilemmas, and with Israel’s task made more difficult by the spin put on the American NIE (“intelligence officers who cannot write properly quoted by journalists who cannot read properly”), the challenge to the two Ehuds—Olmert and Barak—will not involve coming to terms with the recent past, but forming an effective strategy for the immediate future.