A few days after the outbreak of the war, I spoke to old Israeli friends. They live in the Tel Aviv area, and are therefore not directly exposed to the missile attacks in the north. Like most Israeli families, though, they have friends and relatives in the north, some of whom they now host in their home. “Are you winning?” I asked. “No,” my friend said. “We can’t win. For years we all knew that the military was not training — that the state was cutting military budgets and closing down bases. We knew it was just a question of time before this would happen.” “What is your mood?” I asked, hearing gravity in his voice. “We can’t believe that we don’t even have the ability to stop an organization like Hezbollah. It’s not even a state, you know. Where is our great Israeli army? This feels like 1973 all over again.” I’ve heard that comparison again and again from other Israelis in the past few days. And I’ve heard a great deal of disappointment — in a political leadership that is not leading and a military leadership that is not performing.
I was a child during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but I remember it well. Israel was not defeated or destroyed in that war, but the Arab armies’ ability to wage a broad surprise attack and seriously challenge the Israeli military shocked us all. The failure to anticipate the war and to obviate severe losses quickly became known as the mechdal, (great oversight). This negligence on the part of military intelligence eventually led to a commission of inquiry, which in turn forced the dismissal of much of the Israeli Defense Forces’ leadership and the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir and her defense minister, Moshe Dayan. This smashed all illusions of the Israeli public that leaders could be trusted and that victory could always be rapidly assured. It robbed them of the triumphalism bred by the 1967 war, in which the Israeli army stunningly defeated its enemies in a mere six days. 1973 was a rude awakening, reminding Israel of its vulnerability. The war now being waged on Israel’s northern cities is likewise stirring such an awakening.
The Israeli public, two million of whom are refugees from their northern homes or hunkering down in shelters, is quietly questioning its leadership and its military prowess. As a nation full of pride for its military — a true military of the masses in which service is compulsory — even a modicum of doubt in victory is a tremendous rupture for the Israeli psyche. This is a nation of soldiers, parents of soldiers, and friends of soldiers, and so a loss of faith in the army is a loss of faith in oneself. But such is the reality in Israel. “Where is the army of 1967?” is a common question. In the absence of visible results from the incursion into Lebanon, under the strain of continuous rocket fire, the public is growing more and more concerned. They fear that complacency overtook the army in post-Oslo years; that real regional dangers were tragically overlooked in favor of local policing, leaving soldiers more comfortable at checkpoints than in battlefields. They fear that Palestinian claims and the need to suppress Palestinian terror emanating from Palestinian-controlled territories overshadowed the threats of Lebanon, Syria, and Iran — the current-day menaces lurking on the border. As Professor Zeev Sternhall wrote recently in Haaretz newspaper: “the average citizen, who is not working day and night in the corridors of power and is not sunning himself near the generals’ command rooms, is at a loss. Is this how we are restoring the IDF’s power of deterrence? … If several thousand guerrilla fighters do constitute an existential danger to a country with a strike force and weaponry that are unparalleled in this part of the world, how is it that during the past five or six years we heard nothing to that effect from government leaders?” In other words, once again there seems to have been a mechdal, a grave, fatal oversight on the part of the military and the government.
It is not only Israeli citizens who are sounding the alarm, but parts of the army itself. Prime Minister Olmert spoke last week at the graduation ceremony of the National Defense College, outlining his strategic vision. When Olmert pronounced that “in this war we have already achieved unparalleled achievements that have changed the face of the Middle East,” Haaretz reported that senior officers in the audience wondered aloud, “Is it possible that he is looking at the same war that we are?” Other officers argued that if the Israeli moves were presented as a war exercise in the classroom, they would not have gotten a passing grade. Others spoke of hubris, of the faulty belief that the air force alone could overcome the Katyusha problem, and of the prolonged negligence in training reserve units and equipping them properly.
And yet, in the midst of all of this criticism, the Israeli government continues to shout victory. Last Wednesday, the very day that 210 rockets fell in the north — a record number with record range — Prime Minister Olmert declared that the offensive in Lebanon has “entirely destroyed” the infrastructure of Hezbollah. “I think Hezbollah has been disarmed by the military operation of Israel to a large degree,” he confidently continued. Maybe he is right, but Israelis don’t buy it. Nor are wars won by clean metrics; they are the result of perceptions of victory or defeat, strength and weakness. This enormous gap between public perceptions and overblown p.r. statements is growing and serving to alienate Israeli citizens further and further from their elected officials. Moreover, mentions of further unilateral Israeli disengagements from the West Bank during this wartime are poorly timed, as many Israelis view the battle in Lebanon as proof that unilateral withdrawals do not work. Still, Olmert triumphantly predicted last week that the fighting in Lebanon would give “new momentum” to his convergence — the other name for disengagement- plan. The result: National religious reservists from West Bank settlements, well known for their commitment to sacrifice on behalf of the country and many of whom form the backbone of the very units upon which Israeli now relies most in Lebanon, are threatening to refuse service. The way they see it, they will not work for a government that will use this war as a political tool to endanger their homes, their lives, and the lives of Israeli citizens on the whole. National Religious Party chairman MK Zevulun Orlev encapsulated these sentiments well when he said that “any sentient person understands the war has defeated the convergence. Ignoring the fact that a further retreat from Judea and Samaria will bring the Katyushas and Qassams to Petah Tikva and Ben Gurion International Airport is political and military blindness.”
Make no mistake; Israel will win this war in any objective sense — as it did in 1973. Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who crow about this as the beginning of Israel’s collapse because its people have been proven to have no stomach to fight, are deluded. Those who hope that the will of the Israeli people has been broken are betting against reality. What has failed is not the will of the Israeli people, but their leadership and elites. The blindness displayed by those elites toward the future and the recent blindness of the past will no doubt yield political consequences and a reckoning.
The mechdal of 2006 has fractured Israeli society along the lines of the government and the governed, shattering illusions of invincible military power and trustworthy leadership. Historically, this is the stuff of major political change. The 1973 war ultimately led to the 1977 “revolution” in Israeli politics that brought the Likud and Menahem Begin to power. It is too early to predict just what changes we will see and who will pick up the pieces, but a vulnerable populace without strong, in-touch leadership is surely one that is ripe for upheaval.
– Meyrav Wurmser is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.