The first thing leaders need to do

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The preliminary Winograd Report failed to review the increasing reluctance of IDF commanders and political leaders to embark on military initiatives out of fear of incurring casualties. It is, of course, mandatory for military leaders to take all possible measures to minimize losses, especially today, when the potential for this is much greater than it was 20 years ago. However, taking this to an extreme could become the IDF’s Achilles heel.

It’s a heart-breaking issue. All the more so because, aside from haredim, the IDF is truly a people’s army, with hardly a family in Israel remaining untouched by casualties of war. Each loss impacts not only on the immediate family but on the entire nation. The pain and fatigue is augmented by the media, which displays no restraint and zooms in, brutally exposing the bitter agony of bereaved families in a manner inconceivable elsewhere.

The subject is insightfully analyzed in an essay by Assaf Sagiv, in the current (Winter 2008) issue of Azure. Sagiv concludes that despite the principal obligation of the IDF to defend civilians, Israeli leaders today appear to be more concerned about the public fallout from IDF casualties than about civilian losses. He attributes this largely to a natural inclination to idolize youngsters serving in the IDF as the cream of our society. Yet he warns that if such a trend becomes ingrained, it could have devastating repercussions on the security of the state and society as a whole.

A by-product of this has been a less than robust response to terrorist incursions from our neighbors, severely eroding our deterrent ability. Until recently, Israel was renowned for responding vigorously to all acts of aggression. Interpreting our apparent overriding concern with avoiding casualties as a weakening of resolve, our enemies have become emboldened.

Today, despite possessing the most powerful military force in the region, Israel has increasingly developed a reputation as a nation that repeatedly responds to aggression with empty threats. In fact, over the past decade, with the exception of the disastrous Second Lebanon War, terrorists have become reassured that beyond limited targeted assassinations, subject to review by the High Court, broader Israeli reprisals will no longer be implemented.

The mood has also been absorbed by the Israeli public. It was primarily the impact of agitation by the Four Mothers that led to the precipitate withdrawal from Lebanon, providing an enormous boost to Hizbullah and undermining security on our northern border. The inclination to resist preemptive actions or reprisals has become institutionalized beyond the IDF to the political leadership.

It included even prime minister Ariel Sharon, who sat with folded arms as Hizbullah built up an infrastructure and missile capacity which paved the way for the debacle of the Lebanon War.

It is also clear that a principal factor inhibiting a more concerted military effort on the ground at the outset of the Second Lebanon War was fear of a public backlash in the wake of casualties.

Nor do we seem to have learned the lesson. Hamas is currently constructing an offensive infrastructure in Gaza that is virtually certain to culminate in a war. The concern for casualties is apparently once again a major factor dissuading us from taking the necessary preemptive military action to stop the current build-up, despite the realization that the inevitable confrontation at a later date will, in all likelihood, exact a far greater toll in lives.

Of course, this is compounded today by the fact that our premier has become traumatized by the calamity he inflicted upon the nation when he impulsively launched the Second Lebanon War without foresight.

Israel was created as a haven for Jews in distress and as a means to overcome 2,000 years of Jewish powerlessness. Yet, paradoxically, today, despite having one of the most formidable armies in the world, the Jewish state has become transformed into one of the most dangerous locations in the world for Jews.

Israel is unique in being the only country in the world in which a neighboring entity openly launches missiles against its citizens. Our abysmal failure to defend our civilians descended to a level of madness when, immediately following a 72-hour period during which 200 missiles and mortars were launched at us, our government, on “humanitarian” grounds, resumed servicing the electricity and water requirements of Gaza’s inhabitants. It is inconceivable that any other country would behave in such a manner and fail to take more drastic military action to bring an end to such outrageous attacks.

This problem extends to kidnapped soldiers. Our doing the utmost to rescue any Israeli in captivity is a commendable extension of a long-standing Jewish tradition. The Entebbe rescue was an uplifting example of this. But as with military casualties, there is an obligation to rationally weigh the long-term repercussions of such a policy.

No one would dispute that even one Israeli soldier is worth infinitely more than all the imprisoned terrorists combined. However, the issue to be considered is: How many Israelis are likely to die as a consequence of a prisoner exchange? Many of the terrorists released return to their vocation, emboldened in the knowledge that after killing Israeli women and children, even if captured, they will not be executed, but will in all likelihood be released in an exchange.

The most disconcerting aspect of mass prisoner releases is that they create enormous incentives for future kidnapping efforts.

The bottom line is that the prime responsibility of leadership is to defend the state and safeguard civilian life and limb. Our political and military leadership must avoid policies based on short-term gut reactions; they must avoid becoming unduly influenced by public opinion. Despite the agony, they must assume the obligation of determining how the long-term strategic requirements and national interest can best be served. Once such a policy has been determined, it must be explained and promoted to the public.

The adoption of such strategies will have immediate implications for Sderot, where Israelis forced to endure unbearable ongoing missile attacks have become transformed into refugees in their own land. Once the final Winograd Report is been released, we must bite the bullet. The nation cannot afford to delay until missiles penetrate deeper into Israel, ultimately even reaching Tel Aviv.

The longer we postpone confronting the issue, the more damage Hamas and Hizbullah, supported by the Iranians and Syrians, will be able to inflict on us when we ultimately have to take decisive action.

A nation under threat must rationally confront such challenges, or the fanatical resolve of our enemies will bring about greater disasters.

ileibler@netvision.net.il

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