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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Strategic Lessons of the Winograd Commission Report

Filed under: Hizbullah, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Palestinians
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 6, No. 29    May 7, 2007

In general terms, the Winograd Commission Report dealt mostly with the flaws in the decision-making process in Israel. However, the report contains important insights into the strategic thinking that was predominant in the Israeli political-military leadership from the time of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon until the outbreak of hostilities in July 2006, with the advent of the Second Lebanon War:

  • Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon on May 24, 2000. It was hoped that the withdrawal would erode the legitimacy of any continuing military activity by Hizbullah, especially in Lebanon’s internal politics. At that time the Israeli government declared that any violation of Israeli sovereignty would bring about a harsh and immediate Israeli response.
  • These declarations stipulated that in the event of any assault on Israeli soldiers or civilians, all of Lebanon, Syria, and Hizbullah would be affected. The purpose of these statements was to build up Israeli deterrence in the aftermath of the withdrawal. Effective deterrence of this sort was critical for Israel, the Winograd Commission Report explains, for a number of reasons: after the Israeli pullout from Lebanon there was a lack of “elementary depth,” there were many points of friction with Hizbullah, and finally there were multiple Israeli targets – both civilian and military – adjacent to the new Israeli-Lebanese boarder. At the same time, within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) the view developed that if need be, Israel could use “levers of influence” to restrain Hizbullah, such as attacks on Lebanese infrastructure and Syrian targets, as well.
  • Despite these strong declarations, Israel only responded locally to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in October 2000. The Winograd Commission Report presents the assessment of Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh that the Israeli government at the time did not respond more forcefully because it did not want to show that its Lebanon withdrawal had actually produced an escalatory effect. Moreover, the Second Intifada had erupted and the Israeli government was concerned about having to wage a two-front war. This policy of restraint continued through March 2002, when Hizbullah attacked inside Israel near the town of Shlomi.
  • As a result, another view became deeply rooted in the Israeli national security establishment that Hizbullah’s military buildup after Israel’s Lebanon pullout was not so terrible as long as relative quiet along the border was preserved. Israel knew that Hizbullah was gaining strength and acquiring weaponry, but it preferred to turn a blind eye. As a result, Israel did not prepare for war with an enemy that was far more powerful than what it was familiar with in the past.


Implications for the Gaza Strip

  • In the Gaza Strip, a similar process is underway. Hamas is getting stronger as it organizes itself, digs fortifications underground, and builds up its military capabilities. Israel will have to ask itself whether it is preferable to delay the confrontation with Hamas, because meanwhile there is quiet or a temporary truce or some other illusory understanding. We are likely to find ourselves in exactly the same position in Gaza that we created with respect to Lebanon.
  • The Winograd Commission Report, which does not deal with the Gaza problem, describes Israeli policy toward Lebanon during 2000-2006 as a policy of “containment.” Strictly speaking there is a problem with this terminology for what Israel pursued in Lebanon during this period, was not a pure policy of containment, which by definition implies preventing an adversary from reinforcing its capabilities.
  • What Israel is doing today in the Gaza Strip is not containment either, but rather a case of ignoring reality completely. It is an extremely costly policy. Few have any idea what price Israel will have to pay if it moves into Gaza in two or three years, when Hamas feels strengthened and has the capability to launch 122mm Katyusha rockets -which Hizbullah possessed in the thousands – as far as Ashdod and Kiryat Gat. Israeli decision-makers will have to take into account that inaction has a price, as well.
  • Anyone who has dealt with military affairs knows that it is impossible to thwart the firing of Katyusha or Qassam rockets by means of artillery fire, or by means of any land-based or air-based firepower. The Winograd Commission Report details, nonetheless, how many of Israel’s operational plans for Lebanon during 2002-2004 did not require the use of maneuver units on the ground.
  • It is now clear that the only way to thwart rocket attacks is by controlling the situation on the ground. Qassam rockets are today landing in Sderot and Ashkelon – and not in Kfar Saba – because Israel does not control the situation on the ground in Gaza, whereas it has control of the ground around Qalqilya.
  • For political reasons, the IDF was not permitted by the political echelon to cross the Israeli-Lebanese border from 2000 to 2006. This allowed Hizbullah to conduct exercises day and night and to attack at will, while Israel was unable to stop any of its preparations. The only way to deal with such a situation in the long term is to allow the IDF to cross the border and halt such offensive preparations. As long as no responsible government is preventing attacks against Israeli territory, the IDF will have to adopt such an approach both with respect to its northern border with Lebanon and its southern border with the Gaza Strip.

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Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, program director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is former commander of the IDF’s National Defense College and the IDF Staff and Command College. He is also former head of the IDF’s Research and Assessment Division, with special responsibility for preparing the National Intelligence Assessment. In addition, he served as the military secretary of the defense minister.