An insult to our intelligence

By David Horovitz August 29, 2006

Matan Vilna’i: When the chief of staff presents a war plan, ministers have to ask him the right questions, to be sure they know what Israel is getting into. That didn’t happen

Matan Vilna’i, a former deputy chief of the General Staff and now a Labor Knesset member who sits on the key Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, is not seeking headlines. In analyzing the successes and failures of a month of fighting in the North, he’s not shouting for resignations. He’s not screaming allegations of scandalous mismanagement.

But implicit, and at times explicit, in his comments here is a picture of dreadful incompetence – of intelligence information that was not internalized, of confused and shifting overall goals and of screw-ups at the most basic levels as well.

In soccer terms, he says, Israel deserves a yellow card for its performance – a severe warning. On the pitch, the referee’s yellow card is followed by a red if misbehavior persists. And a red card means game over.

Was the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee ignored in recent years in raising concerns about the readiness of the IDF for war? Or did it fail in its oversight responsibilities and fail to highlight the deficiencies that have now been exposed in the course of the war with Hizbullah?

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is not part of the decision-making process. It is updated by those who do carry out the operational decisions and it expresses its opinions.

During war itself, it is very hard to maintain oversight. Still, it is possible to be kept informed and to raise questions and issues – and that’s what happened. Over the four weeks, we had two meetings with the prime minister, two meetings with the defense minister, two with the chief of staff, something similar with the head of military intelligence, we were at the operational centers of the airforce, the general staff, the Northern Command. And that was very positive.

But that’s not to say that we were able to influence matters significantly. The only objection we raised that was directly acted upon involved the nature of our troop deployment on the Golan Heights, which seemed inappropriate and that was corrected immediately. We also raised an objection relating to [the non-]calling up of reserves, and as it turned out the reserves were called up immediately afterward… although I can’t say that that was a direct consequence.

Everything I’ve said to you just now is fine as far as it goes, but it’s not the issue. The real problem is the whole process – the model for strategic decision-making in the State of Israel. And let me stress that it’s not this government or the immediate previous governments. It’s a problem we’ve had for generations. The flaws date from the 1940s, and they’ve not been seriously addressed.

To give one example: We have a National Security Council. Does anybody even know who’s running it? Do you? I have never met the man in charge. I’ve never heard him speak. The National Security Council had nothing to contribute during a month of war?

Decisions are whipped out, the whole picture is not examined, and this war is a case in point.

Let me give you a prosaic example. Hizbullah is a guerrilla group, right? That’s what the citizens of Israel have been told. Who decided it’s a guerrilla group? When the enemy advances, a guerrilla force withdraws. But Hizbullah stood and fought; it didn’t withdraw. Guerrilla forces don’t wear uniforms. Hizbullah does. Guerrilla forces don’t have chains of command. Hizbullah has very clear chains of command.

So how would you define Hizbullah?

Hizbullah is an army. As simple as that. Indeed an army of the future. So this story that we’ve been fighting guerrillas just isn’t true. Now, it’s just a word, but it represents a wide perception because you relate to it differently. That’s a terrible failing by us.

For example, I’m sure you’ll be told that we didn’t have good intelligence. They always say we don’t have good intelligence, because intelligence is like money – you always need more of it. In my opinion, the intelligence was fantastic, astoundingly accurate. The central problem was people’s understanding of that intelligence.

Intelligence isn’t just knowing that in this or that house there’s a bomb. We knew that the air force hit those targets with astonishing success. Seventy-90% of Hizbullah’s long-range capacity was taken out on the first night of the war. That’s thanks to intelligence.

But at the same time, nobody internalized the catastrophic significance of the short-range rocket capability. Ninety-plus percent of the hundreds of rockets falling each day were the short-range rockets. [Hizbullah] transformed the short-range rocket threat because it was equipped with rockets that could fly 30 kilometers.

Now, our intelligence knew about these rockets. The main problem was in the decision-making process, in understanding what we were grappling with. That’s the central issue. We need to be asking now, ‘What were you doing over the years to prepare for this?’

The need to learn lessons is critical. Hizbullah has proved that it does learn lessons – just as the Egyptians and the Syrians did, by the way, at the start of the ’73 war. Hizbullah learned from the 1982 war, even though it didn’t exist at the time. It learned from Operation Accountability and Grapes of Wrath. It learned to familiarize itself with the IDF.

And it realized that we have no answer to the short-range rockets?

No, it’s not that we have no answer. It’s that responding from the air is very complicated. They understood that. What we had trouble realizing, they recognized. When you fire a long-range missile, it’s on a truck, it takes time, it’s a whole operation. And the air force’s achievement was that whenever those trucks were mobilized and the rockets fired, they were immediately destroyed.

Why hadn’t we internalized the limitations of air power in countering the shorter-range rockets?

It comes back to the decision-making echelon. What do they understand it is possible to achieve and what do they recognize is not?

When the chief of staff makes his presentations, they have to know which are the right questions to ask in order to understand him. Not merely to nod. In this case, that was lacking… That’s where we failed.

A second aspect relates to the balance between air and ground forces. And in this case, also because the chief of staff is an air force man, that balance was decided in favor of the air force. To a great extent, for good reason. But always, and I sound like an old general here, wars are determined by the use of ground forces.

Why after a week or a week and a half, when it was clear that the air force could not decisively prevail, did we not either stop or send in ground forces?

That’s exactly what needs to be investigated. We [in the committee] said that this would not be decided by air power, and would require ground forces. Initially, we spoke of special forces. Then it became clear that that would not be enough, and that a critical mass of ground force was needed. [But] I don’t think that there was a single serious discussion on this issue at the decision-making echelon. In error, it was believed that the air force could solve this.

In my opinion, this is not only because the chief of staff was the head of the air force and is a believer in air power. It’s also because everybody has skewed memories of Operation Peace for Galilee. All of Israel is traumatized by the 1982 war, a war of deception…

As a consequence of 1982, there’s a concern that if you go in with ground forces, there’ll be astronomical losses. But there were losses on the ground [this time] and nobody has proved that there would be more losses if you go in decisively with a massive force rather than if you go in piecemeal. In my opinion, the opposite is the case. Clearly when you send in a massive force, there are initial losses, but the other side quickly breaks. In this war, that didn’t even get to happen because of the cease-fire. We paid the whole price of breaking them, but were unable to utilize that success because of the cease-fire.

I’ll say something else. Who decided that we were going to war? In my opinion, no one. They thought it was a limited operation. When did they decide to use the word ‘war’? After two weeks. This proved to be the longest war in our history except for the War of Independence.

When the government decided that it was launching this operation, in response to the kidnappings, nobody thought it would last a month. Nobody thought in terms of calling up divisions of reserves and nobody thought in terms of war. I myself at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the first two days said ‘this is not a war. In a war, all the windows would be smashed.’ It was an operation up north. Slowly, slowly, it started being called a war. They didn’t declare a state of emergency. Only a special state which limited the arena of emergency.

If all this was happening again now, what ought to have been done differently?

Carry out a short, harsh blow and then halt. Primarily an air attack, then stop after three or four days.

The mistake was to carry on?

To be dragged in. To be dragged from an operation to a war. A second option would have been to take a strategic decision – unrelated to the [July 12] kidnappings – that Hizbullah is a threat and that we have to take pre-emptive action against it, a pre-emptive war. That was a decision that had to be taken by the chief-of-staff, by the defense minister, the prime minister, the three of them.

You cannot operate a gigantic enterprise without defining its aims and you can’t change its aims all the time. For the people lower down the hierarchy, it feels like a madhouse. One day you’re told to do this, the next day the opposite. Preparing a rapid military operation takes 36-48 hours, under atomic pressure. If in the course of that 48 hours, you change direction three times, then you need 130 hours. You cannot work like this. It’s amateurish.

The soldiers are kidnapped. You give Nasrallah 48 hours to do a, b and c and if not, here we come. At the same time, you get your forces ready. You hear all the time that the plans were in the drawers, ready. Only people who don’t understand anything can talk like that. Prepared plans depend on fundamental assumptions. Things never pan out precisely as assumed. So you have to take the prepared plans as a basis, re-examine the fundamental assumptions and make the necessary adjustments. You can’t make those adjustments in six hours, nor in 12 hours for that matter. It takes time. There was no such time allocated here. The decision-making process is so problematic, and it’s so vital for the effective use of power.

The easiest force to mobilize is air power. Air power can respond in an extraordinary way. Using ground forces is tremendously complicated, especially in the IDF with its reliance on reservists. It needs days of preparation.

And now here’s a central facet in Israel’s security doctrine: Wherever we need decisive victory, the reserves are required. And wherever the reserves are required, they have to prevail. We don’t have the luxury of not winning. Wherever we’ve deployed reservists in previous wars, we’ve won. Forget the criticisms and the talk of a demoralized army. We’ve prevailed in the most difficult wars. We’ve beaten the most professional armies in the world. The Jordanian army for example – British trained, the most professional army in the Middle East. In the Six Day War, some of the commanders were British. We beat them.

That is at the basis of our security doctrine. Calling up the reserves, we always prevail. And another thing. The minute you order a call-up, it’s a war. And in this case we had to be very careful about a call-up. We should have given that ultimatum to Nasrallah. A decision should have been taken not after six hours, but after two days, and the decision implemented either to use air power alone or to call up the reserves and go all out to the Litani to remove the Hizbullah threat to the North.

Isn’t that what the aim was here from the start?

I really don’t know. I just don’t know.

The problems of lack of food and water were a consequence of the flawed decision-making process?

I’ll tell you. I was astounded. I personally got phone calls, people telling me they had no food or water. Water! Without water, you’re finished. I made the necessary calls and I was told, ‘Matan, we’re better not taking in water [to southern Lebanon] because all the access roads are mined.’

I felt embarrassed. Was I supposed to start telling them from home about using helicopters or the Navy? Should I have been giving them advice on how to do this?

It’s a terrible logistical failure. I ride a bike on Shabbatot. Every cyclist has a back-pack with 10 or 12 litres. A force coming into Lebanon has to be prepared. How can it be that there was no water?

The army apparently did not want to send in supplies because it feared they would be hit and that seems reasonable, but then you have to find another solution. I’ve also heard of medical supply problems that sound like situations from the War of Independence. That an army which receives tens of billions of shekels and always cries out for more is facing those kinds of situations…

And since we’re talking about the budget, there is no real control of the defense budget. The defense budget will grow after this, automatically. And the defense budget is colossal. It can reach a quarter of the budget – 50 billion shekels out of a 260 billion shekel budget.

We must build a joint defense-treasury network to thoroughly familiarize itself with the budget. We need to first of all decide what cannot be touched – the fighting forces, ongoing security, protection of soldiers. But that leaves masses of money. We know there are protective systems that could have been bought and we’re told that there was no money. That’s not true. There was a decision not to take the money from somewhere else. Everything is about priorities.

Are you calling for people to resign at this stage?

Absolutely not. At the moment, everything is impressions. There will be an investigation. It can’t be avoided. Not because heads have to roll, but because we have to get to the truth in order to learn the lessons. There’s one great advantage to this war: In soccer terms, we got a yellow card. We’ve still got some time before we get a red card.

As of right now, this morning, the army should have a plan for how to rehabilitate itself. I’ve already asked that the army present such a plan next week to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. It needs to be followed up week by week. At the same time, the army has to investigate itself and there also has to be an investigation at the national level. I’m not saying who screwed up and who didn’t. I can’t do that.

How badly has Israel been hurt by its lack of success vis-a-vis Hizbullah?

Look, Hizbullah’s been hurt hard. Nasrallah can say what he likes, but the reality is different. Nasrallah personally is still in the bunkers. We’ve all come out into the fresh air. They’ve been hit psychologically as well. As I said, their long-range missile capability has been hit. And whenever there was direct conflict on the ground, we prevailed. Their special force was almost eliminated.

The sense here is that because we didn’t completely prevail, we failed.

Again, that’s a matter of perception. Hizbullah can’t be wiped out altogether. This isn’t the Egyptian army where if you wiped out 1,000 tanks, it no longer functioned even though it still had 3,000 more tanks.

But how much has Israel been hurt by what is perceived as failure in the Arab world?

We’ve discovered that a lot of things are not the way they should be. But we have enough time to reorganize and we’re sufficiently strong to do it. Our image has been hurt and that is important. We have enough time to fix that.

How do you fix such a damaged image? Only in the next round?


And will what has happened encourage other attacks from other quarters?

Maybe. That also depends on what is understood. Mubarak has said, ‘I know the Israelis. I saw them in ’73.’ He was the head of the Egyptian air force in ’73. Bashar [Assad], who is a rookie, thinks this was the war [- an immense success, from his point of view]. He should listen to Mubarak.

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