Michael Totten

Getting Lebanon Wrong

Right after the end of the Hezbollah war I interviewed two members of Israel’s Peace Now who stayed on a kibbutz just a few kilometers south of the border under Katyusha fire attack. Not wanting to give space only to the Israeli left, I sought out someone who could give me a different point of view, someone who was not an officer or spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, someone who could speak his or her own mind freely without having to answer to the government or the army.
Yaacov Lozowick seemed perfect. He’s the archivist at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and he wrote a book called Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars. His Introduction is titled Why I Voted for Sharon.
Right to Exist Cover.JPG
If anyone would be able to provide a clear and thoughtful defense of Israel’s most recent war in Lebanon, it should be him. But he did not say what I thought he would say. The Hezbollah War, or whatever it ought to be called, is one of the least popular wars in Israel’s history.
We met at Yad Vashem and he gave me the best insider’s tour of the museum I could ever have hoped for. Afterward we sat down in the restaurant to talk about his book and the recently concluded hostilities.
MJT: So your book is a defense of Israel’s wars. All of them?
Lozowick: (Long pause.) No.
MJT: The main ones?
Lozowick: No.
MJT: Well, what’s missing? If it’s not a defense of all of Israel’s wars, which ones are not…
Lozowick: The ones that aren’t defensible.
MJT: And which ones are not defensible?
Lozowick: Lebanon One [in 1982] was not defensible. Although the first three days of it could have been. Lebanon Two wasn’t in my book, and that was a stupid one.
MJT: Why was it stupid?
Lozowick: It was stupid because we stumbled into what…it wasn’t a full-fledged war, but it was pretty close to it. From the perspective of the people living up north it was a full-fledged war. So we stumbled into what was an almost full-fledged war with absolutely no prior strategy. If you look — and you don’t have to go back far, we had an election here in March — you can go back and look at the election campaign, it was all of six months ago, and you will not find Lebanon mentioned once. It was totally off the map. It was not a subject that interested anybody. It was off our screen. We had left Lebanon in 2000. Those of us who are educated enough to follow the newspaper and to remember what is says knew that Hezbollah was building this tremendous armory of weapons that were aimed at us. We put it in the way back of our minds, didn’t deal with it, and we went to war with them with a prior notice of about 32 seconds. So that’s one very strange thing.
The second one was that over the next two days Olmert defined for us what the goals were. And they were goals that we could definitely agree with, but they were not realistic.
And the third thing was that after taking us to war in 32 seconds and having defined goals which were very…far reaching goals, he then did nothing to make them happen. He just squandered. He wasted time. There has never been a war — except maybe 1948 — that Israel started out with as much diplomatic…if not backing at least it was acquiescence…as this one, right? The Americans were backing us. Tony Blair was backing us. The Germans, the Czechs, and the Poles were sort of backing us. And most of the West was saying okay, well, you know, let’s pretend we don’t like it, but if you kill the Hezbollah that’s fine. We’ve never been in that situation. Those are better opening cards than we’ve ever had.
MJT: Yeah.
Lozowick: So what did we spend the first days doing? Killing Lebanese civilians for no obvious reason that anybody could see. Right? Bombing Lebanese bridges I could see. You didn’t like it at the time, but that I could see. There’s a military…
MJT: I can see it too. I don’t like it, but I get it.
Lozowick: There’s a military justification for that. You can rebuild bridges.
MJT: Right. It’s not like bombing a restaurant.
Lozowick: Right, but we were clearly not…I always say if you’re ever in the mood for some real good hardcore criticism of Israel…
MJT: Only if it’s intelligent…
Lozowick: …the best and almost only good place to go, you go to Ha’aretz. They are better at it than anybody else because they know what they’re talking about. There was a guy in Ha’aretz, I don’t remember who it was, about the second week of the war, demonstrated in a factual tone of voice that the moral criteria which we were fighting this war were lower than the war with the Palestinians.
It’s very simple. The IDF finds a terrorist holed up in a building in Nablus. They will surround the building. They will…at the end of the day they will have killed the guy or arrested him. But they will not do so as long as civilians are in that building. One civilian and one terrorist and we will figure out a way of getting rid of the civilian before we kill the terrorist.
In Lebanon we weren’t doing it that way. By the third day it was obvious that we had changed our own rules. We were still being careful. We weren’t using Hezbollah tactics. But we were not abiding by the rules that we use fifty miles south.
MJT: Okay, so let me play Devil’s Advocate. It’s a lot easier for them to have these rules inside Nablus — isn’t it? — because they can kind of control Nablus, at least on again off again control, and they know the area. But the dahiyeh [Hezbollah suburb] south of Beirut is 100 miles from the border. And the IDF has no ground control over that place, ever. Not even Lebanon has control of that place. Only Hezbollah does. So how could the IDF have those rules of engagement all the way up there?
Lozowick: I don’t know the numbers, and I don’t know if anybody does know the numbers, but I don’t even know the number of the dead civilians up in the dahiyeh. It wasn’t very high.
MJT: I saw the pictures, and it doesn’t look good.
Lozowick: It doesn’t. But as far as we know — and we could be wrong here — the populace of the dahiyeh had at least a twelve-hour warning that this was going to happen and at least most of them weren’t there. There must have been tens of thousands of people living in the dahiyeh. You were there.
MJT: Yeah, it’s not the size of Tel Aviv, but the size of Ramallah maybe.
Lozowick: Okay. So tens of thousands of people live there. We killed…500 of them? That means that most of them weren’t there. Right? Now, clearly it’s easier to do this in Nablus than in the dahiyeh, and I think from the perspective of the Israelis that a certain amount of collateral damage was inevitable. But…what for? Killing Lebanese civilians in order not to achieve anything…there’s no justification for that that any of us can see.
So we stumbled into this thing without thinking, we set very high goals, we had international backing at one point to an unprecedented degree, and then within days we were killing hundreds of civilians which…we don’t like. The army was saying “it will take us ten days and we’ll kill off Hezbollah.” So had we killed off Hezbollah and had 600 dead Lebanese civilians, nobody would have been happy about it, but maybe you say, okay, maybe there’s no choice. Hezbollah hides itself among civilians, etc, etc, etc. I don’t know. The question would have been raised after the war, not during the war, and it would have been raised in any case, but maybe we would have said there was no choice.
But by the second week of the war the air force clearly wasn’t going to beat the Hezbollah. And then we squandered a week doing absolutely nothing. And then in the third week of the war, and the world is getting more and more impatient with us, the goodwill that had been there was being dissipated. We finally started going in there with totally the wrong forces. They were sending in small units. You know, it wasn’t even done right.
MJT: If I quote you saying all this stuff, I can already see what’s going to be said about what you’re saying. I’ve already said a lot of this myself and was dismissed by the right.
Lozowick: What I’m saying, this is…
MJT: You’re saying a lot of what the Peace Now guys said. Some readers of my blog told me I need to get out of the left-wing bubble. And here you are saying…
Lozowick: Okay, I’ll delineate for you. Number one. I’m saying that although the war was not planned and certainly was not discussed, way over 90 percent of the Israelis in those first days thought it was justified. Myself included. And it was justified even if we were killing some Lebanese civilians because there’s no way you can get at Hezbollah without also getting people that Hezbollah is using as shields.
MJT: Yeah.
Lozowick: Also, so that’s one. Basically I’m smack in the middle. I’m about as close to the Israeli consensus as anybody can be. With springs left and right. Because I zigzag myself. I’m more critical than mainstream Israelis at the moment because of the Lebanese civilians. People can say “Michael, you’re quoting a lefty on that one.”
I’m also saying something which is more right-wing. And that is, I’m not saying that the war shouldn’t have been carried forward. It should have been carried forward. We should have poured in five divisions. We should have done it with as much force as we could muster. And we should have killed every single Hezbollah fighter in Southern Lebanon. I’m not saying it’s a stupid war because it couldn’t have been won. Because I think it probably could have. Or anyway it could have been fought on a level where it would have been obvious to everybody that although Nasrallah on the last day of the war could have been claiming victory it would have been clear to everybody that he’s just talking through his hat.
Having said that, I think that you can quote me as much as you want because this is what most Israelis are saying.
MJT: It’s just funny because I was told by several people to get out of the left-wing bubble. And I’m talking to you, and you’re out of the left-wing bubble, and it sounds the same. There’s a right-wing bubble here, too, isn’t there?
Lozowick: Yeah, the settlers.
MJT: I hate to stick labels on you, I’m just trying to figure out what the Israeli political spectrum is.
Lozowick: We’re in one of those very rare cases right now where there is a consensus. There was a consensus at the beginning of the war that stretched deep into the left-wing bubble. I’m not talking about center-left. Deep into the left. And the consensus now is that it was a stupid war. And that’s, again, left to right. It’s a stupid war because it caused tremendous damage without bringing anything.
MJT: But is there a consensus for why it was a stupid war? Or do you have a left-wing critique, a centrist critique, and a right-wing critique? Because it seems to me like there are some people who are upset that it was stopped early, that it should have been more ruthless. And I’ve heard others say it was too much, it was over the top.
Lozowick: You have to remember where Olmert is coming from. Olmert is a lawyer at heart. He’s also a politician. There’s this trauma of Lebanon from 1982. And we dare not march large forces into Lebanon because our own populace won’t allow it. And the air force says we can do it from the air, so let’s do it that way. So that’s where they were at the first few days.
What I think happened — and I thought so at the time also — was that by the end of the first week…the Israelis are a very educated public when it comes to waging war. Unfortunately. Okay? We know what we’re talking about. We know what we’re talking about on a personal level and on a national level. It was pretty clear to all of us by the end of the first week that this was not going to work because there were going to have to be ground forces.
I think that a sizeable proportion of the Israelis would have been willing or even eager to have a real invasion of Southern Lebanon in the second week. Olmert, I think, didn’t realize that and didn’t follow that. He drew it out until the fourth week. Now, by the fourth week we get people like David Grossman who published a quarter-page ad in the newspaper who said this is a just war. We didn’t expect that from him. And then a week later was saying it’s time to stop the war. His reading of it was that if you haven’t beat the Hezbollah by now then you’re not going to. And maybe we even can’t. And if we’re not going to and we can’t then it’s time to stop the war. That’s the left.
From the perspective of the more military-minded right, it was the other way around. It was, if it’s not going to happen in the third week, then at least it should happen in the fourth week. Which is why at the end they were saying “don’t stop.”
But both camps, the argument between them is the argument that appeared in the third week. In the first two weeks they were all of the same opinion. And that is: we’re in it, we have to go kill the Hezbollah.
When Israelis are angry at one another, they’re angry. And they’re not angry at one another right now. They’re angry at their government and they’re angry at the generals. You get this movement of soldiers and parents who are from two different directions and have somewhat different agendas, but they’re merging. The two groups are the parents and the soldiers. It’s not left and right. There are left and right in both of those groups. They haven’t worked together for twenty years and they will not work together again for the next twenty years. But right now they’re working together. And everybody is conscious of all those three sentences. They know that they haven’t in the past, they know that they won’t pretty soon, but right now they know who they are. Because everybody is aggravated and furious at the political leadership for totally mismanaging the war and at the military leadership.
MJT: So you thought the 1982 Lebanon war wasn’t a good one either. What is it about Lebanon? Israel doesn’t seem to get Lebanon.
Lozowick: It’s a complicated place.
MJT: It is a complicated place. It’s the most complicated place I’ve ever been.
Lozowick: Well…
MJT: I spent seven months there and it took me three months before I felt like I had a grip on the basics. It took three months to get Lebanon 101.
Lozowick: (Laughs.)
MJT: And that was before I could start fine tuning and drilling down into anything. Just getting a mental map of the place and who’s who and what they really think, what they say. It’s…not an easy country.
Lozowick: You have to remember that up until the 1970s, Lebanon was not regarded by the Israelis as an enemy at all. We were fighting war against the Egyptians and the Syrians and sometimes the Jordanians. The Lebanese were not participating in any of this. Even in 1948 the Lebanese hardly participated.
MJT: And it’s still sort of that way.
Lozowick: Well…
MJT: After Hezbollah it is totally that way.
Lozowick: Perhaps, yeah. I can remember in the late 1960s there was no fence between Israel and Lebanon. There was a line sort of there which…part of the problem in 2000 was that nobody remembered exactly where it was.
MJT: Right. They had to redo it with the U.N.
Lozowick: And they did it with old maps. Unlike some places where you can go and see the old patrol roads, like in 1967. In the case of Lebanon there was no old patrol road. Israel even today, Israel has never been at war with Lebanon. It was at war with the PLO. And now it’s at war with Hezbollah.
MJT: What do you think about how the Lebanese government insists, seriously or not – and I say, to an extent, not – that they’re at war with you? The Lebanese government does say this. But they never act on it.
Lozowick: Well, I think legally they probably are. There’s a state of war between Israel and most of its neighbors. Egypt and Jordan no longer. There’s a state of war between us and Iraq also.
MJT: That’s finished, though. It’s de facto finished.
Lozowick: Lebanon…why do we keep getting Lebanon wrong? Maybe it’s precisely because we’re not at war with Lebanon. Next time we go to war with Syria, which may happen, we will be at war with Syria. We will hit Syria. When we go to war in Lebanon then it’s not quite clear who we’re at war with.
MJT: It’s a war in Lebanon rather than a war with Lebanon.
Lozowick: In a war with a country you win by hitting that country so hard that they call uncle, basically. There are even more drastic ways of winning wars, but basically that’s the standard way. You win a war until a country says they’ve had enough and can’t do this anymore. If it’s not a country then…how do you do it?
MJT: It’s like that in the West Bank. The West Bank is not a country with a government that controls everything either.
Lozowick: And we’ve never managed to fully win a war with the Palestinians. We functionally win wars with the Palestinians, we functionally won the second intifada.
MJT: It stopped.
Lozowick: Yeah. So functionally life is normal here. That’s part of the problem between us and the Palestinians. One of the things that the left in Israel used to say was that we need to give the Palestinians a state among other reasons so that we have somebody to hit if they continue to wage a war against us.
MJT: It might work and it might not. Who are you going to hit in Lebanon? They have a government. And they also have a terrorist army separate from that.
Lozowick: I think the third Lebanese war, by the way, will look different. Because we’ll get our act together.
MJT: You really think there’s going to be another one?
Lozowick: Don’t you?
MJT: Probably. I think there’s a small chance there won’t be.
Lozowick: It’s not inevitable, it’s like…
MJT: Predicting the Middle East, politics and war, is kind of a fool’s game. There are so many variables and surprises that…the way I see Lebanon right now is that literally anything could happen.
Lozowick: There’s no doubt that we are preparing for the next war against Hezbollah. We’re not ready for it now. And given the depth and breadth of the stupidities and mistakes that we just did, then it will take a while. But we won’t make the same mistakes twice. Lebanon and Hezbollah will now remain on our radar. They’re not going to drop off like they did before. And remaining on our radar means that serious money and serious effort will be put into preparing for the next round.
MJT: Do you really think it’s possible to solve the Hezbollah problem without dealing with Iran and Syria? They’re trying to rearm Hezbollah right now. And they’ll do it for a third round, too, unless they have some reason not to.
Lozowick: Had we severely hit Hezbollah now…I mean, you can’t eradicate them. The idea is in the minds of half a million people. You can’t make that go away. But had we in this war really severely reduced the strength of Hezbollah, and then the French would have come marching in without hesitation because they wouldn’t have had to confront Hezbollah, would the Lebanese government plausibly been able to then take over? Maybe they could have.
MJT: If you could knock Hezbollah down by 90 percent, then yes.
Lozowick: Yeah. That’s what we thought we were doing.
MJT: But do you think that’s really possible? I mean, look at how long Israel and Hezbollah were slugging it out until 2000. Like the US in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. It’s been going on for a long time. I think the insurgency in Iraq is breakable, but it’s going to take a long time. With Hezbollah it’s the same thing.
Lozowick: No. Hezbollah is better armed than the insurgency. And they’re more visible. You can hit them with bigger stuff. They’re more concentrated in a very clear area. If there were armed Hezbollah guys up in Nabatiya, we didn’t have to hit them. They weren’t bothering Lebanon either in some major way. Most of Hezbollah’s armed power was either in the Bekka Valley or in Southern Lebanon facing us. Had we – I don’t want to say demolished – had we seriously hit them in Southern Lebanon and then moved aside for a heavy European force whose job is to hold the hand of the Lebanese central government until they can grow into it…that’s basically what Ehud Olmert said in his first speech during the first week. He didn’t spell it out that way, but he basically said that’s what the goals of the war were. And we could have done that. We would have just had to run a different war than the one we ran.
And you know what? We could have done so, probably, while killing a lot fewer Lebanese civilians in Beirut. We didn’t gain anything from that. Hitting their command post site made sense, but you know what? It turns out that hitting their command post didn’t make much difference. They weren’t in disarray. Either they had subterranean communications that we didn’t figure out. Or they prepared themselves so well they didn’t need the command post. The guys underneath that bunker in the village in Southern Lebanon knew exactly what they were supposed to do. And they had it all worked out for six weeks. And the only thing we needed to do then was get into the bunker and kill them. And hitting the command post in Beirut didn’t make any difference.
You can forgive the army for not knowing that in advance. You cannot forgive our army for not knowing that they were dug into these gigantic labyrinths. That, we should have known about. How come we didn’t know? It’s ridiculous. You can’t build those things shovel by shovel with nobody noticing it. Not if they’re good enough to withstand aerial bombardments. Not knowing that Hezbollah could keep going without its head…maybe we can be forgiven for that. I don’t know. But we’re doing it wrong. All right?
The peacenik that is in me – and I used to be one – prefers every method except war. But the experienced soldier in me, and also the historian in me, tells me that military power really can achieve most of its goals if done correctly. It doesn’t always, but it can.
Military power cannot make your neighbors love you. You cannot force them to make peace with you. There’s no way you can do that. Only they can do it. But you can hit your enemies to a degree that they no longer threaten you. So if you quote that no one will tell you that you’re in the left-wing bubble.
There is a group of hard-core left that does have a knee-jerk reaction against us just about all the time. What was interesting about the first week of this war was that support of the war even lapped that group. It got that far left.
There’s another thing you need to remember, too, and that’s historical context. Israeli society, as you’ll see when you read the last few pages that I added to my book when it came out in paperback, a significant majority of Israeli society wants to end the occupation.
MJT: What percentage do you think? Do you know?
Lozowick: Anywhere between two thirds and 80 percent, depending on which day you ask them. The reason Arik Sharon did what he did in Gaza is because he’s a canny politician and he wanted to be re-elected. And he was playing to that group, which crosses political parties. Okay? He was playing to that group. The reason he pushed through the disengagement from Gaza was because he felt confident at every single moment of the process that he was backed by a solid majority of Israelis.
Previous to that, Ehud Barak was elected in 2000 on two planks. One was that he was not Bibi Netanyahu, a catastrophic prime minister. And the second was that he was going to get us out of Lebanon. That was his promise. He got elected on that plank, and indeed he left Lebanon. And up until this summer, many people in Israel would tell you nothing Barak did was right except for that.
Olmert was coasting to victory, partly on Sharon’s coattails, but mostly not. We’re not idiots. We know that if Sharon’s gone, Olmert can’t replace him. He’s Olmert, not Sharon. He was coasting to victory because he was going to do the same thing in the West Bank that Sharon had done in Gaza.
The fact that his victory was no narrow, then, was because he’s a fool. He made some stupid statements. He was arrogant. He said “we’re gonna win.” In American politics every presidential candidate always says “we’re gonna win.” That’s the way it happens. With us, no. You don’t say that. You say “we will try to win.” But to say “the election’s finished, we already won,” as Olmert did a month before the election, it’s very stupid. He turned off a sizable chunk of his voters.
The point is, by the summer of 2006, Palestinians were busy proving to us that the disengagement from Gaza was a mistake. And they were busy forcing down our throats that a disengagement from the West Bank would be an even bigger mistake. And then having the Hezbollah join the fight and say leaving Lebanon was also a mistake, that was just too much for people to take. Part of the reason that so much of the left was so solidly behind this war was because they had to win the war in order to be able to continue on the program of getting rid of the occupation.
That’s why Olmert was able to go to war in 32 seconds. Because everybody was absolutely furious at the situation. And it has to be changed. The fact that they made it even worse makes everybody even more furious. But that wasn’t foreseen on the 12th of July.
MJT: So do you think it was a mistake to leave Lebanon and Gaza?
Lozowick: No.
MJT: Why?
Lozowick: Because Zionism is not about controlling Arabs.
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