A few weeks shy of the tenth anniversary of Israel’s May 24, 2000 unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon, last Friday mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot chose to devote its weekend news supplement to a retrospective on the event. The retrospective included a fawning five-page interview with Defense Minister Ehud Barak who ordered the withdrawal during his tenure as prime minister and defense minister. It also included a two-page spread featuring interviews with the IDF commanders who carried out the withdrawal recalling their adrenalin rushes as they retreated their forces across the border.
Nearly hidden between the two puff pieces was a little article titled "We told you so."
It featured an interview with retired far-left Knesset member Yossi Sarid who opposed the withdrawal. Sarid told Yediot that in hindsight, he’s glad the withdrawal went through even though it led directly to the wars that followed. Following Sarid’s self-congratulatory modesty, Yediot gave former defense minister Moshe Arens and Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau a sound bite apiece to lash out at the withdrawal. That base covered, the paper dismissed them both as "right-wingers."
ALTHOUGH UPSETTING, Yediot’s treatment of the Lebanon withdrawal was not surprising. The unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon — which was a failure on every rational level — was a strategy concocted and championed for the better part of a decade by Yediot and its media colleagues at Israel Radio. The paper’s decision to publish a ten-year anniversary retrospective two weeks early was undoubtedly an attempt to preempt and prevent any further discussion of the withdrawal.
Yediot praised the retreat as a work of operational genius because no one was wounded, kidnapped or killed during the 48-hour operation. Of course, by presenting force protection as the IDF’s highest goal, the paper ignored basic strategic realities.
The fact is that the withdrawal was an operational fiasco. In its rush to the border, the IDF left behind huge quantities of sensitive equipment that Hizbullah commandeered. Israel abandoned thousands of loyal allies from the South Lebanon Army and their families to the tender mercies of Hizbullah. These were men who had fought shoulder to shoulder with the IDF since 1982. Those that managed to escape to Israel before the gates were locked were treated as unwanted dead-weight by Barak and his media flacks who couldn’t be bothered with the treachery at the heart of the operation.
The withdrawal was a military defeat. It weakened Israel and strengthened Hizbullah. Without the security zone, Israel had no buffer between its civilian population and Hizbullah. For its part, Hizbullah set itself up in the IDF’s abandoned fortifications and imposed its full control over south Lebanon.
Israel’s strategic incoherence and incompetence in the wake of the withdrawal was showcased just four months later. When Hizbullah forces penetrated Mt. Dov and kidnapped IDF solders Benny Avraham, Omar Sawayid and Adi Avitan, Barak had no idea what to do. So he did nothing.
The soldiers were killed and Israel released hundreds of terrorists from its prisons to secure the return of their bodies four years later. Interestingly, the names Avraham, Sawayid and Avitan didn’t make it into Yediot’s ten year-anniversary retrospective.
The withdrawal was a regional failure. Immediately after the withdrawal, Palestinian Authority chairman Yassir Arafat ordered Fatah chief Marwan Barghouti to prepare for war. Acting on Arafat’s orders, Barghouti formed the Aksa Brigades terror cells comprised of Fatah members and the Popular Resistance Committee terror network that combined Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror cells.
Four months later, after Arafat rejected Barak’s offer of Palestinian statehood at Camp David in July 2000, he ordered his forces to launch the Palestinian Jihad.
Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon showed Arafat that Hizbullah commander Hassan Nasrallah was right to liken Israel to a spider web that would collapse at the slightest provocation. Lebanon taught Arafat that there was no reason to negotiate a peace with Israel. If pressed, Israel would lose the will to fight and surrender.
The withdrawal was a political failure. To justify his decision to surrender south Lebanon to Iran’s Lebanese proxy force, Barak and his media flacks repeatedly presented the false claim that Hizbullah only fought Israel because Israel was in Lebanon. If the IDF were to pick up its marbles and go home, Hizbullah would naturally disband.
This historically false, intuitively nutty assertion gave credence to the false Arab-Leftist narrative which argues that Israel’s size, rather than the Arab world’s refusal to accept a Jewish state in the Levant, is the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
AS HIZBULLAH’S subsequent build-up, continued aggression and eventual de facto takeover of the Lebanese government all showed, Hizbullah was not an Israeli creation. It was formed by Teheran to serve the needs of the ayatollahs. Its continued existence, strength and aggression are dictated not by Israeli actions but by Iranian interests.
So too, the wider Arab conflict with Israel predated the 1967 Six Day War and it won’t end if Israel shrinks into the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. It won’t end until either Israel is destroyed or the Arabs decide that they are finally willing to accept a Jewish state in their midst.
The withdrawal from Lebanon set the conditions for the 2006 war. It provided Hizbullah with the political cache in Lebanon and regionally to rearm. And it gave Shiite, non-Arab Iran unprecedented popularity among the Sunni Arab masses. Even more devastatingly, the withdrawal — which set the course for the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the Olmert government’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from Judea and Samaria — discredited the one strategy that could have brought Israel a strategic victory in 2006: reassertion of Israeli control over the border area in south Lebanon.
For ten years Israel has been paying the price for the withdrawal from Lebanon. And yet even now, with Hizbullah fielding guided missiles capable of hitting Dimona and in control of Lebanese government whose military receives advanced weapons from the US, the Israeli media, led by Yediot are still presenting the withdrawal as an act of strategic genius and political courage.
CONSIDER THE following representative extract from the paper’s interview with Barak.
Q: The most significant argument [against the withdrawal] is that the withdrawal is what built-up Hizbullah. That we are responsible for its increased strength.
A: That is…completely incorrect. When we left Hizbullah already had 7,000 rockets, which is nearly twice what they fired during the second Lebanon war. [In 2000] they already had rockets with sufficient range to hit the power station in Hadera. Hizbullah didn’t exist when we went in [in 1982]. It was formed because we were there. Hizbullah’s build-up is not a consequence of our withdrawal from Lebanon, it is the consequence of our stay in Lebanon….
"Hizbullah’s biggest build-up happened six years after the withdrawal, after the Second Lebanon War. Paradoxically, that war, that hurt them badly and created a type of deterrence, after it ended Hizbullah’s buildup escalated in a major way. They had 14,000 rockets in the Second Lebanon War. They fired some of them. And now they have 45,000 that cover the entire country.
"I suggest that we set aside the comforting story we tell ourselves that we supposedly built them up. We didn’t build them up and there’s no reason in the world to think, from everything I know about reality, that if we were in Lebanon now they would have less rockets."
So we built them up but we have to set aside the comforting fable that we built them up. They were formed because we were in Lebanon and the fact that we’re not in Lebanon has no impact on their build-up.
And how did Yediot respond to Barak’s pearls of strategic wisdom?
Q: You never stop talking about leadership and making courageous decisions. But you’re not a commentator. You are Defense Minister and one of the most important people in the Israeli government. Ten years after the withdrawal and four years after the Second Lebanon War we again hear talk about an inevitable new round of war in the summer. Until when [will we have to fight]?"
This exchange – which is in no way unique – makes two things clear. First, Barak would rather say foolish things than acknowledge the harsh truth of his strategic misstep. Second, led by Yediot, the media prefer to portray Barak’s buffoonery as courageous statecraft than acknowledge the massive cost of his failure.
THE QUESTION is why are they acting this way? From Barak’s perspective, the answer is clear. Telling the truth would force him to acknowledge that his tenure as prime minister was a disaster for the country. Moreover, if Barak were ever courageous enough to acknowledge his failure, rather than listen to what he had to say, the media would shove him into the right-wing ghetto with Arens and Landau. He would lose his status as a brilliant strategist and be castigated as an ideologue.
The media’s commitment to prolonging the fiction that the withdrawal was a stroke of brilliance and blocking all debate on issue stems from the fact that the withdrawal from Lebanon was a media initiative. The media introduced the foolish notion that Hizbullah only existed because Israel was in south Lebanon.
Yediot, Israel Radio and other major news organs championed the cause of an Israeli pullout from Lebanon for a decade. They portrayed EU-financed straw organizations like Four Mothers which called for the withdrawal as mass movements. They demonized IDF commanders for opposing their withdrawal plan. They stifled all voices in the North opposing the move. They castigated all politicians opposing the retreat as right-wing warmongers or conversely in the case of Sarid, as hopeless doves. And they catapulted Barak to power in 1999 after he promised them that if elected he would withdraw the IDF from Lebanon within a year of taking office.
Since the withdrawal, the media have ignored its military consequences. They pretended Hizbullah’s abduction of Sawayid, Avitan and Avraham, its cross border attack in Shlomi in 2002, and its military build-up were unrelated to the withdrawal. So too, as far as the media are concerned, Hizbullah’s electoral and extra-electoral takeover of the Lebanese government and its decision to initiate the Second Lebanon War were all wholly unconnected to the IDF’s withdrawal.
The media have ignored the withdrawal’s regional consequences. They preferred to give credence to Arafat’s claim that the Palestinian terror was a popular Palestinian response to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 over considering the connection between Hizbullah/Iran/Syria and the Palestinians.
They ignored the political consequences of the withdrawal. They opted to support the Arab-Leftist narrative that if Israel contracts to the 1949 armistice lines, the Palestinians will make peace. And they continued to advance this lie even after Hamas took over Gaza in the wake of the 2005 withdrawal.
When people wonder why Israel continues to blunder from defeat to retreat and can’t figure out a way to assert its interests militarily or politically, they need to look no further than Yediot’s ten-year anniversary celebration of the withdrawal from Lebanon. So long as the media continue to portray their ideological fantasies as journalism, no politician will dare to embrace strategic rationality.