Israel Resource Review 25th January, 2007


Amir Rappaport and Hen Kotts-Bar
Correspondents, Ma'ariv

The IDF never recommended to the political echelon to launch an all out war against Hizbullah in wake of the kidnapping of soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on the Lebanese border on July 12 this year. After the kidnapping, the political echelon was shown a series of options and Defense Minister Amir Peretz is the one who pushed for the most powerful aerial response, which necessarily led to war. That is the version that Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz is expected to present this Sunday when he gives his testimony to the Winograd Committee.

Halutz's testimony is part of the series of testimonies of the key position holders, which ends the stage of taking testimony at the Winograd Committee. The committee will weigh submitting letters of caution afterwards, and within a few weeks, an initial interim report is expected.

Since the committee began to work, dozens of witnesses have appeared before it. The stage of testimonies went into the last stretch on Wednesday, when Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni appeared before the committee. On Thursday Defense Minister Amir Peretz and members of his team gave testimony that lasted about four and a half hours. After the crucial testimony that Halutz gives on Sunday, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski and the OC Northern Command during the war Maj. Gen. Udi Adam are expected to testify. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will testify a week later.

Prior to the testimonies that may affect their future, most of the key position holders are consulting closely with lawyers. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, for example, received advice from a battery of lawyers, the most prominent of which is top lawyer Attorney Yaakov Weinroth and Col. (res.) Attorney Rami Boblil, who fills in for the chief military defense counsel in reserves. For a week, the minister and his team, together with the lawyers, went through piles of documents from the war and analyzed them. Peretz claimed to the committee that he had influence over how the war was conducted, and that his contribution was positive.

In contrast to Peretz, outgoing Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz claims that he refuses on principle to be assisted by lawyers, although top IDF leaders are convinced that he will consult at length before his testimony with some of his close friends who are lawyers. Halutz's testimony is considered very important: witnesses who appeared before the committee received the impression that some of the members have marked the chief of staff and are focusing their questions on the decision-making processes that he led during the war. This message was relayed to Halutz before he announced his resignation.

The investigative committee is meant to address three main issues: the preparations made for the war in the north in the six years prior to the war, the way the decision was made to go to war, and the way in which it was conducted-both by the IDF leadership as well as by the political echelon.

As for the conduct of the war, Halutz's situation is very tough. Top officers claimed in their testimony that the political echelon gave him nearly a free hand and that he made a series of erroneous decisions alone, without really consulting the IDF General Staff. They also said that Halutz was firmly opposed to an extensive ground operation, and for a long time stuck to the preconception that the war would be decided from the air. When he eventually recommended an extensive ground operation, it was too late.

But the most dramatic development expected on Sunday, with Halutz's testimony, has to do with the question of how the decision was made to go to war.

The Thought Forum

From testimonies that reached Ma'ariv, it transpires that the most crucial discussion in the IDF on the war was held on Wednesday, July 12, in the noon hours, about four hours after the kidnapping. This was when the "thought forum" headed by Halutz met in the meeting room in the chief of staff's bureau, to examine, for the first time, the possible options of response.

Attending, in addition to Halutz, were his deputy Moshe Kaplinski, OC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Eizenkot, Operations Brigade Director Brig. Gen. Sammy Turjeman, Director of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, IDF Intelligence Research Department Director Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, Director of the Planning Branch Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Harel, Director of the Strategic Planning and International Cooperation Division Brig. Gen. Udi Dekel, IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi and other top officers. The atmosphere was heavy. It was clear to all those attending that Israel had to respond harshly. The question was how.

A number of possibilities were raised at the meeting. One was to carry out a contingency plan of the IDF in case of war against Hizbullah known as "Mei Merom." This plan was based on a large ground operation of a number of divisions in order to take over the Katyusha rocket launching grounds, in parallel with Air Force activity, which would attack Hizbullah centers in the Lebanese home front. However, the top IDF leadership did not want a large ground operation.

Another plan that was brought out, which had been formulated over the years, was a parallel attack on dozens of Fajr missile launchers that Hizbullah had hidden inside the houses of people throughout southern Lebanon. It was feared that if these launchers were attacked, about 200 Lebanese civilians would be killed, something that would lead to international pressure on Israel and to Hizbullah rocket fire at all of northern Israel.

A third option was to be satisfied with an attack on Hizbullah targets deep inside Lebanon, an attack on infrastructure targets such as bridges and the international airport in Beirut. According to this plan, after the initial attack, Israel would freeze its actions and would pose a list of demands to the Lebanese government, threatening to renew the attacks if the demands were not met.

At the end of the tense meeting, it was decided unequivocally to recommend an attack on infrastructure targets such as bridges and the airport (on the grounds that this is meant to prevent the kidnapped soldiers from being smuggled out) and an attack on the palace. However, there was no recommendation to attack the Fajrs, and it was decided to raise the matter for the political echelon to decide without giving a recommendation. IDF officials believed that if Israel did not attack the Fajrs, Hizbullah would not necessarily respond with rocket fire at northern Israel. In this case, Israel could consider its next steps based on the response of the Lebanese government and of Hizbullah.

Why, despite this, did Israel attack the Fajrs and embark on an attack on Hizbullah? According to the IDF version, the various options that were raised at the "thought forum" were presented to Defense Minister Amir Peretz and he decided that the plan to attack the launchers be carried out. At the security consult headed by Peretz, say the testimonies, he said "those who go to bed with missiles won't wake up," and therefore, he recommended to the security cabinet that met that evening on July 12, to attack the Fajrs.

The defense minister presented the plan at the cabinet meeting to attack the Fajrs in the heart of civilian population centers as the security establishment's recommendation. At the meeting with the ministers, Eizenkot and Yadlin presented the plan by means of a computerized display. The chief of staff said at the meeting that Israel is about to come under a harsh rocket attack. In the course of the meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert became convinced of Defense Minister Peretz's position. The decision to launch a large attack passed unanimously.

Immediately after the security cabinet meeting, which was held in the Prime Minister's Bureau in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz convened the "thought forum" and updated it that the government had decided to carry out the plan to attack the launchers. The generals received the impression that same night that the defense minister and the prime minister, who lacked any security experience, did not really understand the significance of the far reaching decisions they had made.

Based on the security cabinet's decision, the IDF issued war command number one, in which the following goals were described:

1 - to enhance deterrence 2 - to exact a price (for the kidnapping) 3 - to set an orderly process for the Lebanese government to take security responsibility over southern Lebanon based on UN Resolution 1559 and step up international and internal pressure to disarm Hizbullah. 4 - to reduce the Hizbullah threat to the home front and decrease its readiness to carry out its threats 5 - to have Hizbullah not reman its positions in southern Lebanon 6 - to create conditions to return the kidnapped soldiers 7 - to avoid a large-scale war, not carry out the "Mei Merom" plan 8 - to avoid a regional deterioration. Leave Syria outside the fighting.

In contrast to this order, the prime minister declared in the first days of the war that the goals are disarming Hizbullah and bringing the kidnapped soldiers home.

Sources close to Peretz confirmed recently that he is the one who pushed to carry out the plan to attack the Fajrs, and he is even proud of it.

Halutz is expected to back up his testimony with documents and protocols. His version could provide a possible explanation to the things he said after Ma'ariv's revealed that he ordered his stock portfolio to be sold on the morning of the kidnapping, that he didn't know war was about to erupt. Halutz refuses to cooperate with the media and to comment at all on his testimony.

Top IDF officials who related to what was written here, find it hard to assess what would have happened if Amir Peretz had not pushed to attack the Fajrs already on the first night of the war and if the IDF had been sent to carry out more limited attacks. "It could be that after Lebanon's response, we would have reached the conclusion that there was no point in an overall war," they say. "On the other hand, it could be that the Fajrs would have been attacked a day or two later." One close adviser to Peretz during the war contends: "In retrospect, it is clear to me that the defense minister fully understood the significance of the decisions he made by a critical gap of a week later."

Amir Peretz's bureau commented last night "the defense minister worked in full coordination with all the ranks, the military and the political. The decisions were made based on judgment and on operational plans and on the options that were presented to him and to the political echelon. The defense minister only comments on these subjects in the proper forums in the Defense Ministry."

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