A number of scandals have erupted in Israeli politics lately. The president and the justice minister have both made headlines for their involvement in separate sex-related controversies, while Prime Minister Olmert himself has been under investigation for possibly receiving an above-market price for the sale of his house. But the scandal that best captures the concerns of ordinary Israelis about the future of their country is the one engulfing Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. At noon on July 12, three hours after a Hezbollah raid that resulted in the deaths of eight Israeli soldiers and the capture of two others and just before the IDF began bombing Lebanon in retaliation, Halutz called his broker and sold off a $28,000 stock portfolio. The story broke a month later, unleashing an ongoing storm of criticism that Halutz was more worried about his personal wealth than the health of the state.
Fair or not, that criticism reflects a broader worry that Israelis are getting so fat and happy that they no longer have what it takes to defeat their numerous enemies. The case that Israel is “slouching toward Gomorrah” is not hard to make.
To begin, one only has to point to Israel’s growing prosperity. A nation that began life with a poor, agricultural economy has become the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. The primary topic of discussion prior to the recent war was Warren Buffett’s decision to spend $4 billion to acquire a majority stake in Iscar Metalworking, an Israeli precision tools company. This—the legendary investor’s first purchase of a non-American company—was taken as a ringing endorsement of the robust Israeli economy.
And why not? Helped by the liberalizing reforms enacted by Benjamin Netanyahu when he was minister of finance from 2003 to 2005, the Tel Aviv stock market is up 87 percent over the past five years and the economy as a whole has been growing at over 5 percent annually. Per capita GDP has soared to over $18,000 a year. That may not seem like much (American per capita GDP is $42,101), but it places Israel solidly in the ranks of the world’s wealthiest countries, substantially ahead of Saudi Arabia ($13,316), to say nothing of its poorer neighbors Lebanon ($6,033), Jordan ($2,219), Syria ($1,418), and Egypt ($1,316). In absolute terms, Israelis are 155 percent richer than they were in 1967, when they won one of the most lopsided victories in military history, and 50 percent richer than in 1982, when they last invaded Lebanon.
Tel Aviv and its prosperous suburbs seem little different from metropolitan areas in Europe and North America. Even in wartime. The closing of Israel’s principal port, Haifa, and the evacuation of over a million citizens from the north were substantial inconveniences. So too was the partial call-up of army reserves, which affected all of Israeli society. But to a visitor, even in mid-August, there was little outward sign that anything was amiss on the crowded beaches or in the fashionable cafés of Tel Aviv. Hippies with funky hairdos and pierced eyebrows were a more common sight than soldiers with assault rifles.
Eran Lerman, a former colonel in military intelligence, noted the striking differences between northerners living under the rain of terrorist rockets and southerners living in the "Tel Aviv bubble." There is a widespread, if possibly unfair, perception that Israeli governments in recent years have been so preoccupied with stoking the economy that they have been reluctant to take the steps necessary to ensure long-term security for fear of spooking the markets.
In 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew troops from southern Lebanon. The border area was occupied by Hezbollah, which claimed a great victory over Israel, and which proceeded to import over 13,000 rockets and to erect formidable, Maginot Line-style fortifications. Ariel Sharon’s government did little about this situation because it was preoccupied with fighting Palestinian suicide bombers. Israel’s victory over the Palestinians culminated in the erection of a security barrier along much of the West Bank and the withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip. These were the physical manifestations of most Israelis’ intense psychological desire to separate themselves from the sordid reality of the Middle East. They prefer to live in the wealthy, peaceful First World rather than the impoverished, violent Third World. Who wouldn’t?
But divorcing themselves from their neighbors has proven difficult. The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was followed by the rise of Hamas, which continues to fire homemade Qassam rockets into southern Israel and to stage occasional raids, such as the one on June 25 that sparked the current crisis. Hezbollah, which has close links to Hamas even though the former is a Shiite group and the latter is composed of Sunnis, joined in the Hamas offensive by kidnapping more Israeli soldiers in the north. Israel had no choice but to send its armed forces back into the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon. But even when forced into war, the government has tried to fight in the manner least costly to its own people and (a less appreciated fact) to the enemy populace.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, a former trade union leader—both national security neophytes—approved a war plan presented by Halutz, the first air force general to lead the IDF. The plan initially called for fighting Hezbollah only from the air. This was reminiscent of the small wars the United States waged in the 1990s (Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan), when it relied on bombs and missiles fired from afar and ran away as soon as it suffered any casualties (Somalia). The Israelis quickly discovered what the United States had learned: Airpower divorced from ground action seldom produces decisive results.
Yet Olmert was so eager to avoid a ground war at first that he ordered only limited raids into Lebanon. These met strong resistance from Hezbollah fighters, who proved better armed and more motivated than the Arab foes that Israel had gotten used to defeating handily. Olmert was forced to call up the reserves, but it soon became apparent that their training and equipment were not up to snuff. Complaints about inadequate logistics were rampant, with many soldiers grousing that they weren’t even given enough to eat while in Lebanon.
Partly because of delays in mobilizing reservists, but mainly because of his own caution, the prime minister did not order an all-out assault to secure all of Lebanon south of the Litani River until just 48 hours before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire took effect on August 14. The premature end of hostilities kept the IDF from wiping out Hezbollah’s terrorist army. Hundreds of rockets continued falling on northern Israel every day right up until the end.
Israel’s hesitation is not terribly surprising given the trauma of its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which finally ended in 2000 amid protests by soldiers’ mothers. It’s as if the United States were asked to send its army back to Vietnam. Indeed, Israel’s “Lebanon Syndrome” has often been compared to America’s “Vietnam Syndrome.” Both have their roots in the humiliations suffered by a potent military at the hands of less advanced but more determined guerrilla foes, and in the deep reluctance of rich societies to risk their sons in open-ended, low-intensity conflicts.
Many Israeli combat veterans I spoke with expressed amazement and disgust with the casualty-preoccupation of the Israeli news media, whose coverage of the recent war was notable for its lengthy profiles of fallen soldiers and wrenching descriptions of their funerals. So much emphasis on the cost of war was startling for those who remembered much costlier Israeli conflicts. During the first week of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel lost 170 soldiers—more than the 118 who fell in five weeks of fighting this summer. (Thirty-nine civilians also died in Hezbollah attacks.) And, at the time, the 1982 losses were considered remarkably light by the standards of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.
“Something has happened to our society when we think losing eight soldiers is a tough day,” said Kobi Marom, a retired Israeli army colonel who guided a group of security analysts, organized by the American Jewish Committee, around the battlefront near the Lebanese border. “Well, I’m sorry, it’s not.”
Not only are Israelis averse to suffering combat losses. They are also, in another parallel with America, reluctant to inflict too many casualties on the other side. While the world’s press and politicians decried Israeli soldiers as butchers—some even compared the IDF action in Lebanon, obscenely enough, to the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto—the IDF actually showed tremendous restraint. Some Lebanese infrastructure was hit, but only enough to prevent the resupply of Hezbollah and to send a message to Lebanese society about the costs of turning over a large chunk of their country to a terrorist organization. The IDF bombed the runway at Beirut airport but not the new terminal. Bridges and roads leading south, which could have been used to ferry supplies from Iran and Syria, were taken out. So were Hezbollah headquarters in the Shiite suburbs of Beirut. But electricity, water, cellular communications, and other infrastructure in the capital remained intact. Sunni and Christian areas were for the most part spared.
The total civilian toll claimed by the Lebanese government—around 1,000 dead--was lower than the total (1,200 to 5,700 dead) claimed by the Serbian government after the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. (Human Rights Watch later estimated that 500 civilians died in the Kosovo war. In Lebanon, the real casualty count is also probably lower than the official figures released by a government that includes Hezbollah representatives).
In the IDF, as in the U.S. armed forces, targeting decisions that may involve collateral damage are reviewed by military lawyers and approved by multiple layers of command. Some targets are judged off- limits altogether. This laudable humanitarianism is, unfortunately, cynically exploited by non-Western enemies with no respect for the rules of “civilized” warfare devised by European rationalists. Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas fire their rockets from civilian neighborhoods precisely because they know that Israeli commanders will be reluctant to bomb those areas.
Given the American-style reluctance of Israel to suffer or inflict casualties, it is not surprising that the Second Lebanon War ended unsatisfactorily. Surveying the results, many Israelis now lament that the frontier spirit that kept their country strong through decades of adversity has disappeared, killed by rampant individualism and materialism and liberalism. In the pages of Haaretz, Ari Shavit, a moderate liberal and one of the country's most respected columnists, rages about the wrong turn that Israeli society took in the past few decades:
Any national idea was rejected because of the sanctity of the private sphere. Every cooperative ethos was dismantled in favor of the individual. Power was identified with fascism. Masculinity was publicly condemned. The pursuit of absolute justice was mixed with the pursuit of absolute pleasure and turned the reigning discourse from a discourse of commitment and enlistment to one of protest and pampering.
There is some truth to this. And yet it would be a mistake to conclude from Israel’s experience—or from the even more severe setbacks suffered by the United States in Iraq—that postmodern societies lack the will to wage war effectively against enemies animated by ancient religious hatreds.
Even the most placid bourgeois communities can display heart-breaking self-sacrifice when necessary. Americans saw this on 9/11 when hundreds of firefighters and police officers rushed into the collapsing Twin Towers. Since then, U.S. soldiers and Marines have fought as bravely and skillfully in Iraq and Afghanistan as their forefathers did in World War II and the Civil War. Likewise, Israeli soldiers fought tenaciously and gallantly when finally given the opportunity to close in on and destroy Hezbollah. The most notable account of courage concerns a major in the Golani Brigade, Roi Klein, who was said to have jumped on a live grenade, sacrificing his own life to save his men.
The fact remains, for all the losses that IDF tanks and infantry suffered at the hands of Hezbollah fighters armed with sophisticated anti-tank missiles, Israeli soldiers won every tactical engagement. There is no doubt that, if given the necessary time and freedom, the IDF would have eviscerated Hezbollah. That was the preferred course of the Israeli public: Polls show a majority wanted to continue fighting rather than accept the U.N. cease-fire. That sentiment was shared by the mayors of towns in the north who met with a group of visitors on August 10 after having been under incessant rocket attack for a month. Over dinner on the Golan Heights, as Israeli artillery shells roared overhead and as Israeli attack jets and helicopters streaked through the night sky popping flares, local leaders told me that they were willing to stay in their shelters as long as it took to eradicate the terrorist menace across the border.
The failure (or, if you like, incomplete success)of this summer’s Second Lebanon War was not the fault of ordinary Israeli soldiers and civilians. It was the fault of Israel’s current leaders, civil and military, who were shortsighted and irresponsible in their lack of preparation for this war and vacillating and irresolute in its conduct. Those complaints should sound familiar to anyone who has followed the dispiriting course of the conflict in Iraq.
No doubt our jihadist enemies will conclude from the setbacks suffered by Israel and America in Lebanon and Iraq that the West is, as Osama bin Laden once put it, a “paper tiger.” Such misapprehensions have long bedeviled liberal democracies. Recall the contempt that Napoleon expressed for Britain as a “nation of shopkeepers.” Or the widespread assumption in the 1930s that liberal democracies were finished: that they were too degenerate and decadent to compete with such vibrant ideologies as Nazism, fascism, and communism. That illusion was buried in the rubble of Dresden and Hiroshima. As Dwight Eisenhower wrote his brother on the day that World War II began, “Hitler should beware of the fury of an aroused democracy.” By the time the fighting ended six years later, American and British bombers had incinerated more than 600,000 German and Japanese men, women, and children.
Today this might be condemned as a “disproportionate response.” The attack on Pearl Harbor, after all, left “only” 2,403 American dead. Yet I sense that even now America, Israel, even Europe would be capable of perpetrating violence on a similar scale if sufficiently provoked. Unfortunately, the way things are going, with Iran and its terrorist proxies growing powerful and increasingly impudent while the Western democracies lick their wounds, we may see this proposition put to the test before long.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.