Gemunder Center Distinguished Fellow IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amidror Op-Ed in Israel Hayom

Deterrence is an Elusive Concept
By IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror

Never, it seems, has there been such dissonance between the media perception of a military operation and the reality a decade later as there is surrounding the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

The public was left with a bitter aftertaste once the campaign ended, and media pundits tried to outdo each other when it came to criticizing the military’s performance, the outcome of the war, and government policies, all while marveling at the sophistication shown by Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Deterrence is an Elusive Concept
By IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror

Never, it seems, has there been such dissonance between the media perception of a military operation and the reality a decade later as there is surrounding the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

The public was left with a bitter aftertaste once the campaign ended, and media pundits tried to outdo each other when it came to criticizing the military’s performance, the outcome of the war, and government policies, all while marveling at the sophistication shown by Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

This notorious campaign, however, has given Israel unprecedented calm on the northern border. Over the last 10 years, residents of the area have enjoyed peace and quiet. So what has caused such a big gap between perceptions of the campaign and the results on the ground?

The first, and perhaps most important, reason stems from the media, which evaluated the campaign’s success according to its own expectations, and not according to its effect on the enemy. These two worldviews were miles apart, especially when you consider Nasrallah’s own admission that “had we known this would be the result of the abduction [of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev], we wouldn’t have done it.”

As it turns out, the Israel Defense Forces inflicted massive damage on Hezbollah. Nasrallah found himself in a precarious situation as a disturbing reality, which many in Israel have failed to understand, became clear: His men were a hair’s breadth away from their breaking point. In fact, it was not Hezbollah’s sophisticated tactics that spared them, but rather Israel’s hesitancy and the disappointing performance of several IDF brigades on the ground.

The criticism of the military was justified, but as Nasrallah learned — the hard way — in any clash between Hezbollah and the IDF, the IDF had the upper hand. He understood he was on the verge of a crushing defeat, one he could not spin into a “divine victory” only because Hezbollah was able to keep up its rocket fire at Israel until the last minute. The crippling blows Hezbollah suffered, particularly at the hand of the Israeli Air Force, also explain why the Shiite terrorist group has been focusing considerable efforts on building up its air defenses.

The second reason for the misperception is the fact that Israeli pundits failed to account for Iranian interests. Iran formed Hezbollah as its regional proxy, its long strategic arm to generate deterrence and retaliate for major events. There it was, wasting its resources on a minor move like the abduction of two Israeli soldiers, for which it was made to pay dearly.
Already anxious about its strategic asset, Hezbollah’s gambit proved that Iran needed to supervise the group far more strictly, as it must be kept from making costly mistakes. So, following the 2006 campaign, Iran imposed restrictions on Hezbollah’s aggression.

Since 2012, another restriction has been curtailing Hezbollah’s activity, one no one could have foreseen in 2006: Four years ago, Hezbollah became an active participant in the Syrian civil war, fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s army. Now it is embroiled in a life-or-death battle in Syria, making the launch of another battle against Israel in southern Lebanon very challenging.

Still, while Hezbollah may be cautious in its dealings with Israel, it has been gaining valuable experience on the battlefield, which will come into play in the next confrontation.

For Hezbollah, preserving Assad’s regime in Syria is a must if it is to maintain its iron grip on Lebanon, successfully deal with internal and external Sunni pressure, including by Islamic State, and continue its armament efforts. Assad’s Syria is Hezbollah’s strategic homefront and part of its link to Iran. This is why Hezbollah has prioritized Syria over Israel, and as long as the civil war in Syria rages on, it will remain this way.

Deceptive calm
The past decade of calm on the northern border may not have been solely the result of the 2006 war, but it is doubtful any cease-fire would have held up as long as it has without it.

The nature of the military campaign itself has been misunderstood by many. The public failed to internalize that when dealing with non-state entities such as Hezbollah, which pose a considerable threat to the Israeli homefront but not to the country’s existence, Israel launches “campaigns,” rather than wars that achieve a decisive result. Many expected something along the lines of the unequivocal victory of the 1967 Six-Day War and wanted to see Hezbollah raise a white flag — which of course did not happen.

One must remember that the impressive victory of 1967 was immediately followed by the War of Attrition, and six years after that the devastating Yom Kippur War. The lesson was clear: Israel must win its wars, but it cannot count on victory to result in its enemies’ disappearance or even to guarantee longer intervals between conflicts, let alone peace. Victory on the battlefield is a necessary condition, but clearly it is not enough. Deterrence is an elusive concept, one difficult to predict and apply, even in the context of successful military campaigns.

As Israel must continue to fight organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, it is best if certain things, underscored by the 2006 campaign, are made clear: Non-state organizations can be defeated militarily, but while it is possible to destroy their operational abilities, one should not aspire to annihilate them with extreme measures (although that is possible under certain circumstances). The real question is not whether they should be vanquished, but rather how beneficial vanquishing them would be, compared to the price of achieving victory and maintaining the new situation.

Israel, for example, could seize the Gaza Strip and turn Hamas into an organization unable to fire rockets or dig terror tunnels. This was the case before the 1993 Oslo Accords, and it could be that way again. The questions are: Would eradicating Hamas’ terrorist nests be worth the potential death toll among Israeli soldiers, and does Israel want to again assume responsibility for Gaza’s 1.8 million residents, knowing they will continue to carry out terrorist attacks against IDF soldiers?

As for Hezbollah, while a campaign to eradicate its military capabilities would be considerably difficult, Lebanon has a sovereign government, and it would be possible to destroy the Shiite group’s infrastructure and withdraw without assuming responsibility for the lives of millions of Lebanese.

Hezbollah currently possesses an unprecedented number of missiles and rockets, so we have to remember that any conflict would see it fire tens of thousands of rockets at Israel, hundreds of which would hit population centers and infrastructure. The Israeli homefront would face considerable destruction, miles from the Lebanese border.

Fighting Hezbollah in the future will be considerably more difficult than it was in 2006, and it will exact a heavy price, both in financial terms and in terms of civilian fatalities, on top of military fatalities. We have to internalize these facts so the difficult reality of war does not blindside Israel.

As a considerable part of Hezbollah’s arsenal is hidden in civilian areas — in homes and public buildings — the devastation in Lebanon would be far worse than it was in 2006. Moreover, since every one of the rockets hidden in residential areas carries dozens of pounds of explosives, barring a mass evacuation, the civilian death toll in Lebanon would be horrifying.

The inevitable destruction in Lebanon would entail a heavy diplomatic price for Israel, as the hypocritical international community would have a field day with statements and U.N. resolutions seeking to restrict Israel’s moves. But the truth must be told: Both U.N. and Red Cross officials have intelligence showing that projectiles are being stored in civilian homes, which raises a simple question: What is Israel allowed to do to prevent these projectiles from being fired at its cities?

These official representatives of the international community have yet to come up with an answer. So they too would be liable for any potential devastation in Lebanon, as they have done nothing to prevent private homes from becoming weapons caches, in clear violation of international law.

Be prepared
In retrospect, and with the wisdom of hindsight, one can say the 2006 Lebanon campaign was mishandled by the political leadership, which failed to clearly outline the desired objectives it wanted the military to achieve. In this respect, the criticism of the government was justified.

The military also underperformed: The troops on the ground demonstrated determination and courage, but for the most part, their missions were vague and their objectives even vaguer. Soldiers were deployed and redeployed constantly, the fighting was interrupted without rhyme or reason, and the commanding officers at the brigade level did not follow a clear strategy, and failed to mark significant achievements.

Meanwhile, the IAF, facing no real opposition from Hezbollah, was able to meet the majority of its objectives. The blows it dealt Hezbollah painted a painfully clear picture for Nasrallah, who understood what the future would bring unless he agreed to the cease-fire that has now been in place for a decade.

The post-campaign reality is complex: On the one hand, since 2006, Nasrallah, in his rare public speeches, has been watching his words, and Hezbollah has been watching its steps. The Shiite group is seemingly willing to contain the loss of valued commanders and assets in strikes foreign media reports attribute to Israel — as long as these alleged strikes take place in Syria and Israel refrains from admitting any involvement.

On the other hand, Israel has been unable to curtail Hezbollah’s astounding buildup. The group’s arsenal is significantly larger and more sophisticated than it was in 2006, and now includes precision missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel. It also possesses a considerable number of anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and anti-tank missiles.

Israel drew valuable conclusions from the war and it now has an impressive, albeit partial, response that can counter Hezbollah’s rockets. Soon, the David’s Sling medium- to long-range missile defense system will join the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system, and the two will be able to counter the threat posed by Hezbollah’s arsenal more effectively.

In 2006, Israeli intelligence and the IAF were able to strike several considerable projectile launching sites, and neutralize nearly all heavy launchers once they were used. In a future conflict this may prove more difficult, as Hezbollah launchers are now more widely deployed. Still, the more launching sites the IDF is able to detect and destroy, the harder it will be for Hezbollah to strike deep in Israeli territory.

To neutralize the threat, especially to northern Israel, the military would have to overrun southern Lebanon immediately. As that may prove an inevitable contingency, the IDF would be wise to formulate the proper battle and training plans.

While the 2006 Lebanon campaign achieved a welcome, prolonged calm on the northern border, one cannot ignore the weaknesses it uncovered or its severe outcome, mainly Hezbollah’s buildup. Confronting the Shiite group in the future would see Israel fight a stronger and far more experienced organization, and it would require “something else” as far as strategy and tactics go.

If the IDF trains for this fight properly — as opposed to the time prior to the 2006 conflict — and if the political echelon outlines its goals and instructions clearly, the IDF would be able to mark significant achievements. As always, even with military gains, the question of how Israel can translate them into diplomatic gains will remain, and that would have to be done in a better way than in 2006.

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