During the Lebanon War of 1982, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was far from the front, serving as the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. Yet that campaign, Israel’s first against a non-state entity, is a useful lens through which to examine the Gaza conflict, as led by Netanyahu and fought by the IDF, in the gruesome summer of 2014.
In Lebanon, an optimistic, solution-minded Israel, went in hard and achieved much militarily, paying in soldiers’ blood, but left only 18 years later with little in tangible political gains. That experience — of the surge into Lebanon, the siege of Beirut, and the way military achievements can be squandered in the Middle East — seems to have informed much of the thinking in the temporarily ceased Gaza campaign.
Quite likely, it played a central role in Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s perception of what the military might achieve in the heart of Gaza City and what leaders, in hotel back rooms, might accomplish diplomatically. Presumably, it girded their reluctance, in the face of significant pressure from the right and left flanks of the cabinet, to pin more significant tasks on the IDF and embrace the geopolitical plans of local leaders.
Both wars began amid similar circumstances. In September 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization, after trying to overthrow King Hussein of Jordan and suffering a subsequent butchering at the hands of his troops, fled Israel’s eastern border and relocated to the north, in Lebanon.
Israel tried once, after terrorists from Lebanon killed 38 people along the coastal road in central Israel, to assert control over the area, launching Operation Litani; but in June 1982, after the ambassador to the UK, Shlomo Argov, was gunned down in central London, the government, sick of the terror empire that the PLO had established in Lebanon, decided to deal the organization a mortal blow.
Up to this point, there was ample similarity between the Upper Galilee and the areas surrounding Gaza today. Then, on June 6, 1982, at 11 in the morning, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee. Four divisions streaked north through Lebanon. Within one week the following had happened: Israel shot down 29 Syrian planes and lost none; it destroyed Syria’s air defenses almost entirely; it cut through the coastal route, the central route and the eastern route north and reached the Damascus-Beirut highway. The capital city, within several more days of intermittent fighting, would be under siege.
During those first seven days of combat, Israel lost 222 men.
On August 30, Yasser Arafat, and the last of his 9,000 foot soldiers, was pried out of the city and he departed for Tunis. By this point, Israel had lost 348 soldiers, The Times of Israel has learned.
But in the following days the remainder of Israel’s alleged plan collapsed. Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Christian Phalange group who had already been chosen as president-elect of Lebanon during the siege, was murdered on September 14, one week shy of his inauguration. The following day, the IDF moved into West Beirut and, during the next two days, it allowed the Phalange forces to enter Sabra and Shatilla, where they wantonly killed thousands of Palestinians.
The Gaza war, which reached a temporary end Tuesday, after 50 days, was everything Lebanon was not: Rather than a forceful push headlong into Gaza, paid for with the lives of hundreds of soldiers, Netanyahu and the IDF brass opted for tentative advances in the pursuit of attainable goals — the eradication of the tunnel threat, for example. Rather than seeking a radical shift in the status quo, Israel sought merely to return to it.
And rather than pursue a plan of anointing a friendly government in a previously hostile seat of power, Israel, under Netanyahu, remains wary of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his ability to stay afloat – both in the West Bank and all the more so in Gaza – amid the crashing waves of jihadism across the region.
This explains the caution and the ostensible hesitancy that led the strongest military power in the Middle East into a sort of unequal draw with the local militia of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For Netanyahu and Ya’alon, who fought in the Lebanon War as an officer in Sayeret Matkal and later as a battalion commander in the Paratroop Brigade, there were no overarching achievements to be had; there was merely the endless and gruesome chore of keeping the terrorist threat in checks, with the hope, as in Lebanon post-2006, of lengthening the periods of quiet between wars.