The Lebanon war’s greatest failure

By Vic Rosenthal 

Israel is not the US. Everything in Israel happens faster, time is compressed, everything is more intense. In the early 1980’s when the VCR came to Israel, everybody bought one in the first two weeks. There’s a story (possibly apocryphal) that somebody inspecting a ship bound for Israel could not believe its manifest, which stated that the cargo was made up entirely of VCR’s. How could such a small nation need that many VCR’s?

An Israeli acquaintance emailed on Tuesday that everyone in the country was consumed by the Winograd ‘earthquake’. Politics, like everything else in the country is speeded up and amplified, so this isn’t surprising, despite the fact that the contents of the report weren’t unexpected. But I’m not sure that the objective failures described in the report were the most serious problems that the war uncovered.

The US fought a large-ish war in Vietnam over a period of 16 years, and lost it. Very little changed in the US (except for the families of the 58,000 killed and 158,000 wounded in that war). Israel’s wars are usually over in a matter of days or weeks. It’s generally thought that Israel, unlike the US, can’t afford to lose one, at least in the military sense. The Second Lebanon War, while a political and propaganda defeat for Israel, was not a military loss in the usual sense: Hezbollah suffered far more casualties and did not achieve any territorial gains.

From a political point of view, the outcome was poor. The Arab nations and the Palestinians learned that military options available to them could not defeat the IDF, but could cause enough pain to force Israel to accept a disadvantageous UN resolution.

Of course the Arabs have also come to believe that more of the same (short-range rockets, anti-tank weapons, fiber optic communications systems) will lead to a military victory over Israel. In this they are seriously mistaken, and they will learn it the hard way in the next round. But that’s another story.

Israel’s strategic position also suffered from the war. Apparently the US expected Israel to more or less destroy Hezbollah. This might have set the stage for an American-brokered peace treaty between Israel and Syria in which Syria would reclaim the Golan Heights and by the way become less friendly to terrorists and supplies crossing her border with Iraq.

Instead, Hezbollah has become even more influential in Lebanon, and Israel would be crazy to want to give Syria the Golan in return for any kind of promise. In fact, Israel should worry about being squeezed into doing so anyway by the US. Today’s meeting between Condoleeza Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem is not a good omen.

However it was in the area of public relations that Israel suffered a stunning defeat. Although she was the victim of a vicious and unprovoked attack and had a great deal of worldwide public support at the start, the combination of Israel’s bad planning — the initial doomed attempt to force Lebanon to control Hezbollah, the abortive over-use of cluster bombs at the very end of the war, etc. — with Hezbollah’s masterful control of the international press (see Marvin Kalb’s paper on this subject and a summary in the Jerusalem Post) resulted in total victory for Hezbollah in the war of ideas.

I think that Israelis should take some time to read and digest the Kalb paper cited above in addition to the Winograd report.

Hizbullah was able to exploit skillfully the technological innovations wrought by the internet and the demands of the 24/7 news cycle, and constructed the narrative story line for the “first really ‘live’ war in history” where “the camera and the computer” were “weapons of war”…

Hizbullah believed the “historic struggle between Western modernity and Islamic fundamentalism will ultimately be resolved” on the “information battlefield.” Hizbullah’s media strategy was crafted to achieve this end… (Jerusalem Post summary of Kalb paper).

During the war, Hezbollah distributed photos and a story of a destroyed ambulance with a hole right in the center of the painted red cross on the roof, allegedly made by an Israeli missile. Israel was slow and uncertain in response. It took an investigative blogger far from the action to analyze the photos and testimony to show up the report for the complete fraud that it was!

I realize that Israeli officials had much to contend with during the war. But this is simply not an area that can be neglected any longer. Just as the IDF is working feverishly to improve countermeasures, logistics, communications, training, etc. in light of the war, I suggest that Israel needs to carefully study her failure to tell her story — during what passes for peacetime as well as in war — and take the difficult and expensive steps to turn this around.

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