Israeli War Plan Had No Exit Strategy
Forecast of 'Diminishing Returns' in Lebanon Fractured Unity in Cabinet

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 21, 2006

JERUSALEM -- Just two days after Israel launched a punishing counterattack against Hezbollah this summer, Israeli military and diplomatic officials were deeply split over war strategy.

On July 14, as Israeli aircraft prepared to bomb south Beirut, the research unit of Israel's military intelligence branch presented a report to senior Israeli officials that questioned the war plan's ability to achieve the government's goals.

The analysis, according to senior Foreign Ministry officials who read it, concluded that the heavy bombing campaign and small ground offensive then underway would show "diminishing returns" within days. It stated that the plan would neither win the release of the two Israeli soldiers in Hezbollah's hands nor reduce the militia's rocket attacks on Israel to fewer than 100 a day.

Those initial conclusions held true when the war ended 31 days later.

"The question we want to know to this day was why the military chose an option that had no exit strategy," said a senior Foreign Ministry official who read the report. "They never had one, as far as we could tell."

An examination of the first days of the war shows that leaders of Israel's newly elected government launched a broad military campaign without a clear strategy for how it was to end. It also reveals that while Israeli military officials anticipated an entrenched guerrilla force, front-line officers were surprised by just how well prepared Hezbollah was.

This account was drawn from interviews with Israeli military commanders, senior political and diplomatic officials and soldiers, and a visit to the site where the war began. Several commissions are investigating how Israel's political and military leadership managed the war, and those conclusions could determine how long Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government remains in office.

Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, the military's chief of strategic planning, declined to comment directly on the research unit's assessment. But he acknowledged that "yes, you are right, that at one point we reached a point of diminishing returns."

"But you never know when that crack will come," he said.

The Ambush

On July 12, two Israeli Humvees passed within yards of a Hezbollah ambush point. It was a hollow carved in the underbrush, just above the track used by Israeli military patrols. The hidden Hezbollah camp was stocked with food, water, radios, rifles, antitank missiles and diagrams detailing the insignia and size of Israeli military units. The Hezbollah fighters aimed and fired at the Israeli convoy just after 9 a.m. along a remote bend in the fence-lined road.

Lt. Col. Ishai Efroni, deputy commander of the Baram Brigade, had for months seen donkeys carrying sacks on the other side of the border, led by men who appeared to be Lebanese farmers. "We thought it was fertilizer," he said of the sacks. Later, he realized it was weapons and equipment. "This is what you learn in guerrilla school," he said of the Hezbollah fighters. "You take your time."

Efroni noticed that the Hezbollah gunmen had grown increasingly brazen walking the fence line in his sector along the northwestern border, and on May 28 the guerrillas fired a barrage of Katyusha rockets toward Israel's coastal towns. "I got the feeling something had changed," said Efroni, 41, who has spent most of his career in the northern border area.

On July 12, the dull thump of explosions reached Efroni's brigade headquarters as he reviewed morning intelligence reports. Six other army posts reported taking fire at the same time, coordinated attacks that knocked out surveillance cameras.

Contact with the patrol was lost after the Hezbollah team knocked out the trailing Humvee, killing the soldiers inside. But it took 20 minutes to confirm that Staff Sgts. Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26, were missing from the first vehicle, a delay that gave the gunmen a large lead as they fled through olive orchards to the Lebanese border village of Aita al-Shaab.

Efroni sent a Merkava tank, an armored personnel carrier and a helicopter in pursuit. But the most direct route into the village was a dirt track lined with explosives-filled trenches. Instead, Efroni ordered the tank through a rocky canyon from the east. Tracking its progress from the operations room, he watched with alarm as it unexpectedly veered onto the road near a known Hezbollah post.

The blast beneath the tank was enormous, killing the four soldiers inside instantly. The fight to retrieve the bodies lasted hours and killed the eighth Israeli soldier of the day.

"All they wanted was some part of their bodies," Efroni said, referring to the Hezbollah fighters. He recalled that Israel had released hundreds of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab prisoners in exchange for the remains of three soldiers taken in 2000 and a kidnapped civilian. "They know we go to great efforts to get our people back."

An Evolving Response

At 9:45 on the morning of July 12, Olmert sat across from Noam and Aviva Shalit, an unassuming couple who had come to hear how Israel's leader intended to free their son, captured by radical Palestinians outside the Gaza Strip 2 1/2 weeks earlier.

There was a knock on Olmert's office door. His military aide entered with a note.

The slip contained news of the ambush. "Hannibal," the army code word for a captured soldier, had been passed up the chain of command.

"I think you should read this, too," Olmert said as he handed the note to Noam Shalit, according to his communications director, Asaf Shariv, who watched events unfold that morning.

The Hannibal code triggered instant aerial surveillance and airstrikes inside Lebanon to limit Hezbollah's ability to move the soldiers it had seized. "If we had found them, we would have hit them, even if it meant killing the soldiers," a senior Israeli official said.

Olmert ordered his government to assemble that evening for an emergency meeting at military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Just before 6 p.m., Olmert arrived at the compound of palms and grassy courtyards. For the next two hours, his generals and intelligence chiefs presented him with a plan to strike Lebanon's roads, bridges, international airport and other infrastructure, especially in the Shiite Muslim south that is Hezbollah's heartland. This was followed by a government meeting, which went on until midnight.

Several officials said there was little dissension among ministers over the scope of the response. Within hours it had become an air-and-sea blockade of Lebanon. But Olmert, who was elected in March having never held a security portfolio, expressed concern over what Hezbollah intended to do in response.

"He wanted to know what would happen in the north," a senior Israeli official who attended the meeting recounted. "On that day, though, everyone was in favor of war."

Scores of targets were hit in the first hours, including many of Hezbollah's longer-range rocket launchers in a single 34-minute period. But rockets launched by Hezbollah soon began falling across northern Israel.

The conventional Israeli military plan for an attack on southern Lebanon is called "Stones of Fire." The doctrine has been revised over the years, but it still relies on a ground invasion force of four army divisions.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, Israel's chief of staff, set that plan aside. Instead, Halutz, the first air force general to lead the military, emphasized air power. He hoped aerial assaults would encourage Lebanon's Sunni Muslim and Christian populations to turn against Hezbollah, a radical Shiite movement that has an armed wing and a vast social services network, and that operates as a state within a state.

"We couldn't fight Lebanon as a country," said Nehushtan, the military's head of strategic planning. "The only way to stop them was to make them take the blame for their attacks."

Given the expected rocket reprisals from Hezbollah, some Israeli officials believed a large ground war was inevitable and should begin sooner rather than later. But Nehushtan, then a brigadier general, said "Stones of Fire" had lost its relevance after Syria's military withdrew from Lebanon last year. He said Hezbollah's guerrilla tactics required a different approach.

According to Israeli intelligence estimates, Hezbollah had invested $1.5 billion over the past six years preparing for war, chiefly with material and logistical help from Syria and Iran, whose Shiite government uses the militia to project power in the Arab world. Weapons had been stockpiled in tunnels, bunkers and private homes, a nightmarish scenario for a conventional army in the age of cable news.

Israeli military officials had watched much of the preparation take place from ground posts and aerial surveillance, and even knew which houses were used for storing some of Hezbollah's rockets months before the war began. But senior Israeli officers said the extent of the tunnel networks, the size of the arsenal and some of the more sophisticated weapons in it were not anticipated.

The officers also said Israel's airstrikes on some bunker systems and built-in short-range rocket sites were less effective than planned. Also, the Lebanese did not turn against Hezbollah as the Israelis had hoped.

"This was not the beginning," Nehushtan said of Hezbollah's ambush. "This was the end of one process and the beginning of another."

Support From Abroad

Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was one of those who initially supported the military assault on Hezbollah. She was influenced by events earlier in Gaza, when the soldier had been captured by radical Palestinians. Some of her senior advisers had been arguing that there were bigger issues involved -- that Israel should strike hard at Hamas, one of the groups involved in the soldier's capture, and attempt to focus international attention on its radical supporters in Syria and Iran. Livni had not fully agreed with them at the time. But when Hezbollah struck, she readily assented.

"I think July 12 was the day she accepted the thesis we submitted weeks before that we were being threatened by a radical axis," a senior Foreign Ministry official said. "This was another in-your-face event that if we allowed to go unpunished would lead to many more abductions."

Livni's chief concern was avoiding the international condemnation of a military strike that accompanied Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. She reached out to the Bush administration, to European governments and to moderate Arab nations, whose Sunni leaders publicly criticized Hezbollah for the ambush and viewed Israel's response as an opportunity to rid the region of a menacing Iranian proxy.

The support she found, according to two senior officials, was surprising given the international criticism that accompanied past Israeli operations in Lebanon. Some within the ministry interpreted the support as encouragement to deepen the war.

"It took us more than a week to understand how the world had changed," the senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Internal Dissent

The internal consensus, trumpeted in public by Israel's leaders, crumbled with the military intelligence assessment. A senior Foreign Ministry official said Livni was briefed on the report at 2 p.m. July 14 and immediately ordered her staff to begin devising a diplomatic exit strategy.

Later that day in a meeting of the seven-member war cabinet, she voted against bombing Hezbollah's urban stronghold in south Beirut. She was concerned that the plan would only bring an escalation in Hezbollah rocket fire and not further the government's goals. Most of the cabinet voted to continue the bombing, according to Foreign Ministry officials, even though a number of cabinet members were expressing angry surprise over the size of Hezbollah's arsenal and tenacity on the ground.

In the days that followed, the cabinet, led by Olmert, continued voting to expand the war as proposed by Halutz and other proponents of the air campaign. While failing to deplete Hezbollah's rocket fire, the Israeli bombardment avoided heavy casualties for Israel, casualties that a major ground invasion would have brought.

Avi Dichter, Olmert's public security minister and a member of the war cabinet who also opposed the bombing of southern Beirut, said 10 days after the military intelligence report was filed that "if there are surprises, I think they are local surprises, not strategic ones."

"You can do this in a very short time," Dichter said. "But you are going to kill many more innocent civilians and cause many more casualties among the troops. We have no intention of doing either."

On Aug. 11, Israel finally went beyond the air campaign and pushed thousands of troops across the border as the debate over a U.N.-brokered cease-fire began. The goal of the troops was to destroy Hezbollah's short-range Katyusha rockets that the air force had been unable to knock out.

Just three days later, the troops froze after Olmert's cabinet accepted the cease-fire terms -- a period when 35 soldiers died, nearly a third of all Israeli troops killed in the war. "We realized we had to do this from the ground," Nehushtan said. "And it was left incomplete."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company