One by one the warriors ascended the stage Sunday evening to receive their commendations for battlefield valor and heroism during the war with Hizbullah last summer. Showing no emotion, they stood stiffly at attention before IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as an announcer recounted how each one in turn eschewed his own safety and voluntarily walked, flew or rode into enemy kill zones to save wounded comrades and defeat the enemy.
The ceremony in Tel Aviv, broadcast live on television, was deeply inspiring. As Ashkenazi said, the 38 men - four of whom were killed in battle - who received decorations for heroism are the best of Israeli society. And as Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted, Israel's neighbors should beware. If they dare to wage war against Israel, it is these fearless warriors, who already proved they will stop at nothing to complete their mission, whom they will face in battle.
The warrior spirit, so evident Sunday night, plays a decisive role in the lives of line soldiers and their commanders. The education combat soldiers receive from their parents, and the training and personal example set for them by their squad, platoon, company and battalion commanders all lead to a situation where heroism is a natural component of the IDF's fighting units. By exposing this fact, the awards ceremony was a source of inspiration and relief.
BUT THE ceremony was also frustrating. The majority of the decorations were given for acts of heroism related to the evacuation of wounded soldiers from battle under heavy enemy fire. Most of those battles occurred between two and five kilometers from the border with Israel. What they demonstrate is that Israel never effectively controlled the battle space it fought on.
This was not the fault of the forces on the ground. This was the fault of the General Staff that sent those forces into battles undermanned. It was the fault of the General Staff that undervalued the strength of Hizbullah units; failed to understand its battle schemes; and mismanaged the fighting. Disturbingly, aside from Ashkenazi, who replaced disgraced Lt. Gen Dan Halutz as Chief of General Staff after the war, almost all the commanders who displayed such incompetence last summer remain in their positions.
The General Staff of course, was not alone in its incompetence. It was led by the most ineffectual government Israel has ever seen. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government squandered the unprecedented international support that Israel enjoyed on July 12, 2006 when it properly decided to go to war after Hizbullah attacked northern Israel with rockets and missiles and kidnapped IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
The government failed to understand the regional character of the war and so refused to attack Syria. It ignored the gravity of the situation and so refused for weeks to call up IDF reserve forces. Then after belatedly calling up the reservists, it delayed ordering them into battle until international support for Israel had all but disintegrated and the government had already decided to sue for a cease-fire that left Hizbullah intact as a fighting force and as a political force in Lebanon. In so doing, the government ensured that the heroism of Israel's forces could not be brought to bear in a manner that could enable Israel to emerge victorious from the war.
LIKE THE General Staff, the government too remains in power.
By losing the war despite our soldiers' competence to win, the Olmert government surrendered the power to shape Israel's strategic environment to the country's enemies. And our enemies have lost no time in initiating changes in the Lebanese, and indeed regional landscape. These changes ensure that when Israel's warriors are next called to fight, the enemy forces they will face will be far more powerful and dangerous than those they faced last summer.
Since last August's cease-fire, under Iranian direction Hizbullah has operated on three levels at once. First, Hizbullah has reasserted its control over the border towns in southern Lebanon. Hizbullah has prevented Christian Lebanese, who fled the fighting last year, from returning to their villages and so has ensured that the population along the border area is loyal to its forces.
Through a campaign of constant intimidation of UNIFIL forces, amplified by occasional armed attacks, Hizbullah has effectively destroyed any will that UNIFIL forces might have had to prevent Hizbullah from reasserting control over southern Lebanon. Hizbullah's control over UNIFIL is made clear by the behavior of Spanish forces. After six Spanish troops were killed in June when their patrol came under attack, the Spanish government held open talks with Hizbullah and Iran to ensure the future protection of its forces.
Hizbullah has not limited its operations to the border zone. It moved most of its arsenal and positioned most of its forces north of the Litani River. There, the Iranian government has invested tens of millions of dollars in buying villages outright from Christian and Druse landowners to expand Shi'ite control of the country to the Syrian border through which arms are moved daily, unopposed.
As Amir Taheri reported this week in The New York Post, some 50% of lands in the Druse village of Sraireh have been purchased with Iranian funds by Hizbullah. The Druse/Christian village of Chbail has similarly been bought and others, along the border with Syria, are being targeted for purchase.
POLITICALLY, Hizbullah and Syria have actively worked to undermine the US-backed Siniora government. Here, the Lebanese military "victory" Sunday against Syrian-backed guerillas in the Nahr el-Bared camp is notable. It took the Lebanese military nearly four months of fighting to take over the camp. One hundred fifty-eight Lebanese soldiers were killed in the confrontation against a mere 360 Syrian-backed guerrilla fighters. Most of the guerillas escaped unscathed on Sunday morning as Lebanese forces moved into the camp.
The Lebanese army's pathetic performance at Nahr el-Bared tells us something important about the loyalties of the Lebanese military - 40% of which is Shi'ite. During the war last summer, Lebanese forces openly assisted Hizbullah in identifying and marking Israeli targets for missile attacks. Since the war the Lebanese army has paid the pensions to the families of Hizbullah fighters killed in the war.
THE QUESTIONABLE loyalties of the army extend beyond its soldiers. Army Commander General Michael Suleiman enjoys warm relations with Syria. As Barry Rubin reported yesterday in The Jerusalem Post, the Syrians are supporting Suleiman as a potential candidate in the Lebanese presidential elections scheduled to take place on September 25. With a "glorious victory" at Nahr el-Bared behind him, Suleiman is being hailed as a national hero.
The Olmert government announced last week that tensions along Israel's border with Syria have decreased markedly. Barak and Olmert proclaim that war with Syria which seemed imminent in July has been successfully averted. But even if this is true, it is far from clear that the abatement of tensions works in Israel's favor.
Syria's apparent decision not to launch an immediate attack on Israel does not signify a loss of Syrian will or interest in attacking Israel. Today Iran and Russia are tripping over each other as they line up to provide Syria with advanced weapons and modernize the Syrian military. Their assistance ensures that when war comes, Syria will perform well.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russian military advisers are training Syrian forces on the ground in Syria. As Ma'ariv reported Friday, Russian advisors are involved in improving Syria's signals intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities. If plans go through for the Russian Navy to station its forces at the Syrian port of Tartus, the Russians are scheduled to secure that port with advanced land to air PMU-2 ballistic missiles that will cover most of Syrian airspace.
At Sunday's ceremony, the members of the General Staff looked visibly ashamed as the stories of the heroism of the forces they sent into misguided battles were recounted. To their credit, at least the generals, including Halutz, showed up for the ceremony.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert couldn't even do that much. Just as he refused to attend the official memorial service for the war's dead in July, so Sunday, Olmert was too busy to attend the ceremony.
Israel owes its survival to its warriors. But for them to successfully defend the country against the expanding regional threats, they must be led by commanders and politicians who are worthy of their sacrifices.