Israeli Leadership Suffers From Unilateral Withdrawal Syndrome

Civilians have now become equal partners with the Israel Defense Forces in the war against Israel’s enemies. That is not the way it was supposed to be.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on June 5, 2012.)

It seems that some of our military-men-turned-politicians are suffering from the unilateral withdrawal syndrome. It may be typical of the military mindset: Get it over with! Finish the job! Do something! Do anything! Actually, on some occasions that may be the correct strategy. It usually comes under the heading of “Cutting your losses.” But often it may be the wrong way to go.

Two of our illustrious military leaders seem to have been afflicted by this syndrome. One was Ariel Sharon, who peremptorily decided on the unilateral withdrawal from Gush Katif and the forceful uprooting of 8000 Israeli citizens from their homes, in the expectation that the move would ease Israel’s defense problems and advance the peace process. The other is the present defense minister, Ehud Barak, who has a long record of espousing unilateral withdrawals in the expectation that therein lay the solution to our problems, or else that this is the way to evade an oncoming tsunami that he thinks he sees approaching on the horizon.

His first opportunity came in 2000, when, as prime minister and defense minister (he insisted on holding both positions ), he decided on the unilateral withdrawal from the south Lebanon security zone, abandoning Israel’s ally, the South Lebanon Army, and bringing the Hezbollah terrorists up to the border fence in the north. He expected this move would transform Hezbollah from a terrorist organization into a Lebanese political party that would abandon its policy of launching attacks against Israel, or alternately that Israel, after the retreat, would be able to deter Hezbollah from continuing its terror attacks against Israel. It didn’t work.

But that mistake did not lead Barak to change course. Switching to the “land for peace” paradigm, he continued by offering the Syrians the Golan Heights in the expectation that they would then rein in Hezbollah in Lebanon. We can today consider ourselves fortunate that that plan was not brought to completion. Trading land for peace simply did not work, nor did deterrence work against terrorists. Hezbollah celebrated the Israeli withdrawal, strengthened its hold on Lebanon and amassed a vast arsenal of rockets that could reach a good part of Israel. These rockets came down on Israel’s civilian population during the Second Lebanon War, which was a direct outcome of the unilateral withdrawal from the south Lebanon security zone.

Hezbollah rockets are today poised in far larger numbers to threaten Israel’s civilian population in all of the country. We may want to believe that we are capable of deterring them from launching these rockets, but just to be sure we are investing tremendous resources in the meantime to prepare the civilian population for such an attack. Unless these rockets are removed, they are going to be launched against Israel’s civilian population at a time chosen by Iran, Hezbollah, or both.

But Barak cannot get unilateral withdrawal out of his mind. Now he suggests that we consider staging a unilateral withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, thus putting the central population areas of Israel in the range of Kassam rockets to be launched from there.

Over the years, slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, Israel’s civilian population has been brought to the front line alongside the armed forces in time of war. Ben-Gurion’s strategy of securing their safety in case of war has been abandoned. This happened first in the border areas of the Galilee, then in the areas surrounding the Gaza Strip, then in all of southern Israel. At present all of Israel’s civilians have been allowed to become the first victims in case of terrorist rocket attacks or outright war.

During the First Lebanon War Israel decided to defeat the terrorists and brought about the expulsion of Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization forces from Lebanon. During the second intifada, in Operation Defensive Shield Israel chose to defeat the terrorists in Judea and Samaria. Even though it has been demonstrated that terrorists can be defeated, nevertheless deterrence, unilateral withdrawals and “land for peace” have become the strategy of choice, despite their proven shortcomings.

These strategies are carried out on the back of the civilian population. They have now become equal partners with the Israel Defense Forces in the war against Israel’s enemies. That is not the way it was supposed to be.

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