The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted Yosef Kuperwasser, former head of the Research Department of Israel's Military Intelligence (Aman) and the Center's Charles and Andrea Bronfman Visiting Fellow, for a policy luncheon discussion on the July-August war between Israel and Hizballah.
Kuperwasser began by saying that it is difficult to do an assessment of the war because the events of the summer are still recent. Israel has initiated an investigative committee (the "Winograd Committee") to review the government's and military's respective performances, and the passage of time will bring with it better lessons from what occurred.
Kuperwasser argued that over the past 30 years there has been little international effort to assist Lebanon in fixing its "broken system" of society and governance. As a result, Lebanon became a microcosm of the Middle East, with various factions fighting each other, each trying to prove its ideology, its perceptions, and its philosophies as correct. Within this context, Hizballah had sought to take actions to prove its strength and dominance. The events of the summer, Kuperwasser explained, were planned by Hizballah long in advance. Hizballah decided to kidnap Israeli soldiers about a year and a half before the July 11, 2006 kidnapping. Kuperwasser pointed to a January 29, 2005 speech by Hizballah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, where he declared that Hizballah would kidnap Israeli soldiers. A main reason Hizballah planned the attacks was to justify the existence of the organization as an armed force within Lebanon. By carrying out a kidnapping, Nasrallah hoped to prove that the state of Lebanon was powerless and power should stay in the hands of resistance organizations.
Kuperwasser argued that Hizballah made a strategic calculation, believing Israel would not respond forcefully to the kidnappings. Hizballah thought that since the Lebanese government is not responsible for the activities of Hizballah, Israel would not retaliate against the government or against the infrastructure of Lebanon. In addition, Hizballah believed that Israel would not dare fight against Lebanon because it knew Hizballah had more than 12,000 rockets aimed at civilian targets within Israel. Lastly, Hizballah believed that Israel would not carry out any ground operation because it had withdrawn from southern Lebanon (in May 2000) after 18 years of what many within Israel felt was a trying experience.
Because of his calculations, Nasrallah believed he would communicate a new vision to the Middle East, one that showed Israel not ready to fight and Hizballah as an organization that would suffer and take risks for the people. In that respect, Hizballah hoped to communicate a broad message on behalf of extremist groups- namely, that resistance groups could defeat Western powers. However, Kuperwasser argued that Nasrallah made a fundamental mistake. He calculated that future events would unfold in a similar fashion as they had unfolded in the past. Specifically, Nasrallah made the mistake of believing Israel's past actions of restraint against Hizballah provocations would be a predicator for its future actions.
Kuperwasser went on to say that Israel has long had an interest in a strengthened Lebanon and a Lebanon that is independent from Syrian or Iranian influence. Until the middle of 2005, Lebanon was making progress in this regard, with former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri advancing many reforms and the Syrian Army leaving Lebanon in April 2005. Many in the international community applauded these events. However, there was concern within the Israeli intelligence community. Specifically, Kuperwasser said, Israeli intelligence was concerned that the radical elements in Lebanon would take harsher measures to counter the progress. Kuperwasser noted that Hizballah tried four times to kidnap Israeli soldiers before being successful on July 12, 2006. According to Kuperwasser, Israel warned Nasrallah, saying that its retaliation would be harsh.
Regarding Israel's intelligence assessment, Kuperwasser argued that Israel knew what resources Hizballah possessed. Specifically, Israel knew Hizballah was well trained, well motivated, and well established in the villages, and would employ guerrilla tactics. As importantly, Israel also knew what it did not know. Namely, while Israeli intelligence knew where many of the rockets were located, it did not know where all the rockets were located. As a result, Israel was aware that it would be impossible to strike all of Hizballah's rockets with an air operation. Regarding the argument that the war harmed Israel's deterrence, Kuperwasser acknowledged that many will remember Hizballah not losing. However, many countries in the region will remember the fact that Israel managed to attack 7,000 targets in 34 days from the air, the result of Israel's ability to combine real-time intelligence with air force power. Kuperwasser explained that out of the 7,000 targets, about 1,000 were pre-planned. The rest were "opportunity targets" which Israel used real-time intelligence and coordination with its air force to strike.
Kuperwasser warned that the war is not yet over. While United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006) had major positive elements, Kuperwasser cautioned that many actors in the Levant (such as Syria) will actively oppose its implementation. Despite this, Kuperwasser expressed hope because unlike in many other places, reformists in Lebanon are a force with which to be reckoned. In addition, Kuperwasser predicted that Hizballah will be remembered in Lebanon as an organization that serves foreign interests and not the interests of the Lebanese people.
During the question and answer period, Kuperwasser explained that one goal of the war, from Israel's perspective, was to enable reformists within Lebanon and the international community to take a stronger role in turning Lebanon into an accountable state. While he acknowledged that the immediate effect of the war may not have strengthened reformists, Kuperwasser argued that the battle is still ongoing. Within the current context, Hizballah will find it extremely difficult to take any action that jeopardizes the ceasefire. The international community should use the opportunity to engage by strengthening reformists and ensuring the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006).