by Amy Klein
What do you do with your last two hours before your partner has to join up with his reserve unit to fight in Lebanon? We were two weeks into the Second Lebanon War (the government was still calling it a “campaign” but everyone knew it was a war). Gonen’s unit commander had telephoned to warn him that an official call-up would come later that morning. Gonen packed his duffel and we walked with our sons Ziv (age 4) and Amir (2 months) to Rafi’s bakery to buy hallot for Shabbat. We also bought some borekas and forced ourselves to eat breakfast in the bakery patio before heading home. The phone rang again as we returned. Someone up the chain of command, we learned, had been overeager; most likely, Gonen’s unit wouldn’t be called, or at least not until Sunday. I thought he should unpack his duffel, but I didn’t say anything.
The week before, I had asked him what he thought about the war. According to the media, it wasn’t clear that we could achieve the goals of the war — stopping the Katyusha rocket firings on northern Israel, dismantling Hezbollah, obtaining return of the hostages — and given these practical considerations, I hadn’t fully addressed the larger moral question of whether going to war was justified. Gonen simply responded that he hoped our leaders knew something we didn’t know.
Apparently they didn’t. In mid-August, immediately after the war, reservists returning from Lebanon called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the war’s execution, and for the resignation of those primarily responsible: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. An otherwise unlikely coalition of reservists, families of soldiers killed in action, and right-wing political activists had come to life. On September 17th, Olmert responded by forming the Committee to Examine the Campaign in Lebanon 2006, popularly known as the Winograd Committee after its chair, retired judge Eliyahu Winograd. The committee was to make “findings and conclusions” regarding the conduct and behavior of the political and military echelons as far back as six years prior to the war. However, Olmert limited its power to make personal “recommendations” (such as calling for reprimand or resignation) to military personnel, which left political leaders beyond its reach, and he ignored the pressure to establish a full government commission with members appointed by the president of the Supreme Court rather than by his government.
Chief of Staff Halutz decided not to wait for the committee’s interim report in six months and instead resigned. Everyone ‘inside’ knew that there had been serious problems with the way top commanders had executed the war (‘inside’ meaning in Lebanon, ‘outside’ meaning in Israel.)
Gonen was ‘inside.’ His call-up had come that same Friday, a complete surprise after the false start of the morning. We were hosting Shabbat dinner for Gonen’s siblings and their families, who were already feeling the effects of the war: the wife and two young children of his brother, who had been called up the week before, and another brother, his wife and their three children, who were wandering from home to home in order to avoid staying in their top-floor apartment (with no safe room) in Haifa. I had just finished saying kiddush and the kids ha-motzi. Gonen was serving the chicken. He handed over the bowl and swung into action, which he does when he gets nervous. He put on his uniform. He checked his gear. He left saying that now I would feel like I really belonged in Israel, as I was about to have the true Israeli experience.
His family stayed a while to get me through that first bit. The news showed reservists from other units, secular and religious, loading onto buses in the center of town while ultra-Orthodox were shouting “Shabes!” at them.
Gonen’s mother, one of the chief activists in the Four Mothers organization, which had been responsible for getting Israel out of the “botz ha-levanoni” (Lebanon mud) in 2000, was in favor of this war. Now her two eldest sons were returning to Lebanon. Four days later, her third son was called up. Fortunately, the fourth and youngest, whose unit had been called first to go inside, was out of the country. Ours was not the only family to get three or four call-up orders, but it seemed to me that the computer should have automatically rescinded the last order, at least.
The Winograd Committee announced its interim findings on April 30th. Headlines the following day trumpeted the committee’s particularly harsh conclusions against Olmert, Peretz,Leba and Halutz.
A leader who sends his army into an extensive military operation has an obligation to the country, the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces who risk their lives, and the citizens both of Israel and Lebanon. These obligations include an in-depth analysis of the necessity for a military move, its timing and its nature, and of the chances of its success given the area. We saw that the rash decisions to go to war made by the government headed by Olmert did not meet these conditions . . . .
The minister of defense did not have knowledge or experience in military, political or governmental matters. He also did not have good knowledge of the basic principles of using military force to achieve political goals. Despite these serious gaps, he made his decisions during this period without systemic consultations . . .
Made a decisive contribution to the flawed decision-making process that led to the Second Lebanon War . . . personal and command responsibility for severe deficiencies in the IDF’s performance, from the lack of prepared plans for a campaign in Lebanon to his excessive confidence in the air force’s abilities and his decision to keep opposing views within the army from the cabinet.
Journalist Gabi Gazit borrowed from “The Internationale” in his monologue on Israel Radio Reshet Bet the next day:
To my astonishment, I woke up this morning and discovered that Olmert and Peretz are still with us. Today is the first of May. Arise, damned of the earth, arise, prisoners of hunger, whose leaders have not come to their senses, have not yet sobered up from their night of drinking and are still clinging by their fingernails to the seats of their chairs and uttering broken cries about the need for repair. No, no. He who has broken should not do the mending, he who is sick should not do the healing.
Journalist Ari Shavit wrote in Haaretz that the blue camp (for disengagement from the occupied Palestinian territories) and the orange camp (against disengagement), as well as the secular and religious camps, now had to stand together. I was unconvinced. The worst outcome of the war, after the loss of life and destruction on both sides, was Olmert’s shelving of his West Bank disengagement plan. Nehemia Strassler was more to my way of thinking in Haaretz, May 6th: The right was not calling for the resignation of Olmert and Peretz because it opposed the war, he wrote, but for reasons of political opportunism — with Netanyahu waiting in the wings.
The Winograd report tacitly agreed with Ariel Sharon’s policy of restraint in the face of provocations following the pullout from Lebanon in 2000, and sharply questioned whether Olmert’s decision to go to war was justified by Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Most of its focus was on the ill-preparedness of Israel’s ground forces and the absence of clear and achievable war aims. Reservists who had fought reported confusion in the top command structure, and analysts pointed to the fear of Israeli military casualties, which had prevented campaigns that might have dismantled Hezbollah’s short-range rocket-firing capability.
I experienced that fear personally, if not uniquely. Cell phones gave me the false idea that I would hear from Gonen every day — but the fact was that he could barely bear to hear my voice, and there was no way he would speak to his son. Hezbollah was listening in, too, so the soldiers were ordered not to call from Lebanon. After three days of silence, I actually called the liaison officer (after digging through papers to find Gonen’s army i.d. number) so I could learn how to send a package. I had no idea how one did these things.
I soon realized that I couldn’t have the radio on when Ziv was around. Once he excitedly said, “Ima, they said ‘Ashdot Yaakov’ on the radio.” Ashdot Yaakov is the kibbutz on which Gonen was raised, where his parents still live. A young soldier from there, Moran Cohen, zikhrono livrakha, had just been killed in action; his older brother was serving with Gonen when the news came.
It has been difficult to hear interviews with families who believe their loved ones died in vain. In fact, the war did have some achievements: We wiped out Hezbollah’s long-range missiles, revealed to the world the undeniable Iran-Hezbollah connection, and demonstrated the superior fighting capacity of Israeli ground troops — which may serve as a deterrent in the future. It is reasonable to believe that waiting until Hezbollah were even better trained and armed would have been worse.
It would be nice to feel opposed even to limited military action, but even the international community, expressing its will through the United Nations, didn’t show much interest in that sentiment. The UN took its time pushing through a cease-fire agreement so that Israel could do its bloody work of trying to wipe out Hezbollah — who thought nothing of using Lebanese civilians as human shields, forcing them to stockpile weapons and turning their basements into bunkers. Even while Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, celebrated Winograd’s interim conclusions, others in Lebanon actually dared to say that it was a pity that Lebanon didn’t have its own Winograd Committee to examine Nasrallah’s responsibility for the widespread destruction of the south of his country.
In the end, the Winograd Committee will result in the resignation of those responsible for launching a war without proper readiness and identification of aims. I fear that it will take much more, however, to send Gonen’s duffel into permanent storage.
Rabbi Amy Klein is the Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Israel Program and serves on the board of Rabbis for Human Rights.
A graduate of the UCLA School of Law and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she came to Israel on aliyah in 1997.