They Fell Asleep at the Wheel

On the North and South, meaningless slogans replaced clear thinking by the government. Illusions and delusions were substituted for dealing with the dangers that faced us.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on July 18, 2006.)

It all started six years ago when then-prime minister Ehud Barak summarily ordered the IDF to leave the security zone in southern Lebanon, abandoning our allies of the South Lebanese Army, and allowing Hezbollah to take up positions within spitting distance of Israeli towns and villages in the North. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, then likened Israel to a spider web that could easily be torn to shreds, and the Palestinians were encouraged to begin the second Intifada, so costly to Israeli lives in the following years. But at the time, Barak, so sure of himself, warned that now that Israel had withdrawn to the international border, if Hezbollah were to dare carry out hostile actions against Israel, Lebanon would suffer a “blow that it won’t forget.”

Five months after the withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers. One might have expected that Barak would carry out his threat and teach Lebanon a lesson at that point, but evidently he was busy hatching other plans. It was the beginning of the deterioration of Israel’s deterrence in the North. There is nothing like not implementing threats that have been voiced in order to convince your enemy that you are no more than a paper tiger. That, in any case, was the conclusion of Hezbollah and its mentors in Damascus and Tehran. In the following years, dozens of Katyushas were launched into the Galilee, anti-aircraft fire was directed so that the rounds would fall into Israeli villages and settlements, IDF positions were mortared, and successive Israeli governments just got accustomed to it, while Israelis deluded themselves that the withdrawal from southern Lebanon had brought quiet to the northern part of Israel. But, well known to the IDF and government, Hezbollah began stockpiling medium-range rockets in Lebanon that quickly served as an effective deterrent against an Israeli response to the organization’s provocations. In any case, Hezbollah had succeeded in getting successive Israeli governments used to intermittent provocations. It had put them to sleep.

Katyushas again fell in the North seven weeks ago. This time, it was the Olmert government’s turn to reach a decision. Its response was to order the IAF to hit Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon. The IDF proudly announced it had destroyed Hezbollah positions. As should have been well known, it was no more than a meaningless gesture. It was only after the latest Hezbollah attack that the government decided to make good on Barak’s threat six years ago. Successive Israeli governments – Barak, Sharon, Olmert – had simply fallen asleep at the wheel.

It must be sleeping sickness, because it was pretty much the same when it came to Gaza. For 10 months after the ill-famed unilateral withdrawal from Gush Katif and the settlements at the northern tip of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza reinforced their capability. Weapons were brought in from Egypt, Qassam rockets were produced, and tunnels were dug. And Qassam rockets rained down daily on Sderot and settlements on the Strip’s periphery. The government got used to it. Idiotic slogans were voiced by government spokesmen such as “there is no magic solution,” and there is no “bang, and it’s all over.” In other words, Israel just has to learn to live with it.

When, as should have been foreseen, a Qassam rocket fell into the center of Ashkelon, the prime minister declared this was a serious escalation, neglecting to mention this was the direct result of uprooting the settlements at the northern tip of the Strip, which really is the height of folly. Throughout this time, the government stubbornly insisted that the Gaza problem could be handled from the air, without getting our hands dirty. After all, after “leaving Gaza,” IDF ground forces were not going to be sent back in. So the people of Sderot would just have to grin and bear it.

Until the wake-up call came. The attack against an IDF outpost at Kerem Shalom and the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit roused the government from its torpor. Now IDF ground forces are back in Gaza doing what should have been done 10 months ago.

Regarding the North and South, meaningless slogans replaced clear thinking by the government. Illusions and delusions were substituted for dealing with the dangers that faced us. It is high time to wake up.

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