The Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a video-conference briefing on May 9, 2007 to discuss the political and national security implications of Israel’s interim Winograd Commission report into the conduct of the July-August 2006 war with Hizballah, which was released on April 30, 2007. Joining the Saban Center via video link from Israel were Zeev Schiff, Defense Editor of Israel’s daily newspaper Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn, Diplomatic Editor of Israel’s daily newspaper Ha’aretz, and Zvi Shtauber, Director of the Institute for National Security Studies. Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center, moderated the discussion from Washington, while Zvi Shtauber moderated from Israel.
Indyk opened the discussion by laying out several questions that had emerged following the publication of the interim Winograd report: what does the commission’s report mean for the political future of the Olmert government? How have Israel’s deterrence capabilities been affected? And, what does the report tell us about the way that the Israeli Army is functioning?
Zeev Schiff began by saying that the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon left unsettled the question of who had won. This was the first time in Israel’s history that a war had ended without an Israeli victory and, worse, with an unclear result. Despite this outcome, Schiff argued that the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) capabilities were still robust. However, the war communicated to Israel’s opponents a new means of challenging Israel—through guerilla attacks and rocket strikes targeting civilian population centers. Palestinian terrorists have copied Hizballah’s tactics and have concentrated on rocket attacks against Israeli cities. Schiff said Israel has not yet developed an effective strategy for combating these attacks. At the same time, Schiff argued, the Olmert government is weak diplomatically, and does not have the public’s trust to negotiate any peace arrangement with the Palestinians.
Shtauber pointed to an ongoing phenomenon in which conventionally and numerically weaker forces emerge victorious in battle. Over the last 50 years, in a majority of cases, Shtauber argued, small forces have managed to defeat numerically larger forces, as occurred in the war between Israel and Hizballah in 2006. Despite Hizballah’s successes, Shtauber argued that the Israeli Air Force had significant accomplishments because it was able to eliminate almost all Hizballah long-range and mid-range missile capabilities within the first hour of the war. Shtauber argued that the war between Israel and Hizballah does not mean that unilateralism should be dismissed as a policy option. Instead he argued that unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon (in May 2000), and the Gaza Strip (in August 2005), were not a mistake. At the time, unilateral withdrawal was Israel’s best option.
Benn provided an overview of the political fallout from the interim Winograd report. He said that the question over the survival of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government is the most discussed question in Israel. Benn said he believed Olmert could survive until early to mid-2008, although he acknowledged that not many analysts agree with him. Benn said that despite attempts to bring the government down, such as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s call for Olmert to resign, Olmert had survived. As a result, the next politically important event will be the Labor Party primary in late May. If Ehud Barak wins the primary, he would become Defense Minister and could revive Olmert’s coalition government through his strong presence. While Barak’s agenda is to be Olmert’s successor, not this deputy, the appointment of Barak as Defense Minister would give the public more confidence in the Olmert-led government.
Benn said that for Olmert, public opinion is not of vital importance. Rather, what is maintaining Olmert in power is coalition politics. Olmert has among the lowest approval ratings of any prime minister in Israeli history. However, the only party that wants early elections is the Likud Party—the current Knesset in theory should sit until March 2010. Other parties, particularly those in the coalition, such as Olmert’s Kadima Party and the Gil (Pensioners’) Party, will probably lose many seats in the next election and therefore do not want to rush to the polls. Therefore, Olmert has been focusing his survival strategy on the political system rather by gathering public support.
One participant asked why Israel does not consider talking with Hamas. Benn answered that the situation is not clear cut: unlike Hizballah, which abides by ceasefire agreements, Hamas does not. Also, whereas Hizballah is a cohesive unit, there are too many actors and factions within the Palestinian community for Hamas to be able to control terrorist activity. Despite this, Benn argued that negotiations with Hamas may be attractive to Israel because Hamas has proposed a long-term ceasefire, rather than pressing for near-term discussion of politically difficult permanent status issues. In addition, since Hamas assumed power in January 2006, terrorist attacks against Israel have declined. It may therefore be in Israel’s interest to keep Hamas inside the political system. However, Benn noted that such discussions with Hamas are unlikely because of the European Union and the United States’ boycott of Hamas, and the Israeli Left’s commitment to negotiate only with members of Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Regarding Syria, one participant asked whether there is a serious desire by President Bashar al-Asad to negotiate with Israel. Another participant asked if the situation today is somewhat parallel to the situation between Israel and Egypt in 1972 – Anwar Sadat spoke about wanting to make peace with Israel and then launched a war. Today, Asad talks about peace but has taken apparent preparations for war. Benn said Israel had missed an opportunity to talk to Syria after the Israel-Hizballah war. Immediately following the war, before the Winograd committee began its work, Israel was in a stronger negotiating position. Now, however, the Olmert government is weak, and it is unclear if Asad would be willing to engage with Israel. Schiff said that it would be a mistake for Israel to turn down any Syrian offer for negotiations.
A participant asked whether the Olmert government would undertake action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Shtauber said that any Israeli prime minister, not just Olmert, would want to postpone the decision of whether to use force against Iran. There is still the possibility that economic sanctions can slow down the Iranian nuclear program, but should Israel reach the conclusion that economic sanctions are not working, it must accept that a military option may be required. According to Shtauber, the challenge is that Israel wants to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability but does not want to alienate the Iranian people.