For the past ten years, children who live in towns and villages across Israel’s border with Lebanon have not known the eerie sound of an alarm or of missiles falling in their playground. For the past ten years, farmers have been plowing their lands without fearing the shots of Hezbollah’s snipers. The second Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 was difficult and long and it exacted a high death toll, as well as severe damage to infrastructure on both sides. Nevertheless, it created a new reality, one which benefits all parties to this day.
Two months prior to the war, I was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister at the end of a difficult election campaign in which I led the Labor party to enable the formation of a center-left government headed by Ehud Olmert.
Despite diverging views on economics, Prime Minister Olmert and I were closely aligned on foreign policy. The “Convergence Plan” for Israel to withdraw from most of the West Bank had been announced, and the diplomatic vision that I supported since the 1980s was taking shape: the demarcation of Israel’s permanent borders alongside an independent Palestinian state.
At the time, Hezbollah repeatedly provoked Israel and encouraged other terror organizations such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah executed an appalling operation in which it entered Israel’s sovereign territory, killed three soldiers and kidnapped two, and rained down rockets along the northern border.
It was clear that a red line had been crossed and that a resolute response was absolutely necessary. It also meant the breakdown of the old paradigm, which had prevailed up until that point. Both the security and political establishment supported a doctrine of containment. Since withdrawing all its army forces from South Lebanon to the internationally recognized borders in 2000, the IDF had acted with restraint. Even when Hezbollah raised its flag of radical Islam on the border and shot at Israeli towns, the working assumption was that it would eventually let the missiles rust in its armories.
Placing their faith in the optimistic doctrine of containment, my predecessors in the defense ministry – all of them endowed with rich military experience – lowered the level of readiness of entire army units in the northern border. Both supplies and intelligence were lacking. Furthermore, an asymmetrical war with a terror organization presented a unique challenge to the home front and put hundreds of thousands of citizens in range of Hezbollah fire. It was clear to me that it was practically and morally wrong to rely on the public’s long-term resilience and expect civilians to absorb casualties and live with a persistent sense of threat.
That was the background for a shift from a standalone notion of offense to a new doctrine that combined passive and active defense. As part of this new approach I ordered the development of the Iron Dome defense system, which intercepts short-range rockets and artillery shells, fired from distances of four km (2.5 miles) to 70 km (43 miles). In subsequent military confrontations with Hamas this system proved itself, destroying thousands of missiles before they hit civilian targets.
The second Israel-Lebanon war helped stabilize the borders and solidify Israel’s deterrence. Beyond the strategic consequences particular to Israel, including ten years of relative calm on its front with Hezbollah, there are three lessons to draw from the war in Lebanon that are relevant for other government as well:
First, a new world order is taking shape, in which nation-states across the globe are facing perpetual and fast-evolving security threats. These arise from non-state actors like al-Qaeda and semi-state ones like ISIS. Peaceful intentions must thus go hand in hand with an unshakable commitment to strike against terror. Practically, this mandates an investment in traditional military means alongside the adoption of the aforementioned active defense systems.
A second lesson from the war, as well as from other more recent events in the Middle East, is that a tighter global network of information and technology sharing is necessary to counter the expanding network of terror. This has partially been the role of UNIFIL ever since UN Security Council Resolution 1701 was adopted to cement the ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon.
Finally, political leaders have the responsibility to reenforce any military campaign using diplomatic means. The stability of the past decade is the fruit of the Israeli army’s actions together with diplomatic efforts. Politicians must be as tenacious as soldiers are on the battlefield in pursuing every opportunity for bilateral and regional long-term agreements with moderate Islamic regimes. No matter how well deterrence works, the path of war made it even clearer to me how essential the road to peace really is.
Amir Peretz is the former chair of the Israeli Labor Party, Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. He is currently Member of Knesset of the Zionist Union faction.