Thirty years after the start of the first Lebanon War, there is a renewed discussion about what then Prime Minister Menahem Begin knew about former defense minister Ariel Sharon’s plans, and whether Sharon told Begin and government ministers the truth, the whole truth, before going to war. It’s a fascinating historical argument, but doesn’t touch on what’s truly important: there certainly was a lie surrounding the Lebanon War, a widely accepted one.
The Israel Defense Forces’ entire top brass knew that “40 kilometers” — the distance north of the border beyond which Israel said it would not proceed — was a meaningless term, contradicting both the outline according to which the IDF had trained in the year preceding the war, and the plans that were approved. On the first day of the war, conscript soldiers from the Paratroopers’ Brigade landed on the Awali, much further than 40 kilometers north of the Israeli border, with their sights set toward Beirut. To the soldiers it made no difference, except for the reservists, who started to understand the lie on their way to the border; their commanders, who knew very well where they were headed, became partner to it from day one.
That didn’t bother them, because an army is an army, and it wants to fight. And that’s what we should have learned since then, but haven’t: war is too important a matter to leave in the hands of generals. Civil society, from the government to other institutions, must take responsibility. Twenty-four years later, Ehud Olmert asked his ministers not to vote against the army’s position on the eve of the final operation of the Second Lebanon War, and no politicians, not the civilians or the former generals, to this day dares take this responsibility.
The press responded to the beginning of the war in the spirit of a Yedioth Ahronoth editorial by Amiram Nir, may he rest in peace, when the war started, entitled “Quiet, They’re Shooting.” The editorial attests to the fact that it wasn’t quiet before the war. There was disagreement, not about the “40 kilometers” or “Operation Peace for Galilee,” as the war was called, but about the central issue: the big plan to redesign the situation in Lebanon. Not everyone knew that Sharon, with the encouragement of the Mossad, meant to establish this new order based on the unstable foundation of the Gemayel family [a prominent Lebanese Maronite family with leaders Amin and Bashir], but everyone knew that what was under discussion was much bigger and more ambitious than previous steps. And that’s what we should have learned but didn’t: whoever calls for quiet on the basis of populism or fear of being seen as stabbing the warring nation in the back, is collaborating with the lie and is as responsible for it as whoever initiated it.
Since the Second Lebanon War and to this day, every Israeli show of strength is accompanied by the call, “Quiet, They’re Shooting.” Over the course of most of the fighting in the Second Lebanon War, the press conveyed the government’s message: Israel is under attack and needs to respond with force until the attack stops. The simple facts are that from the afternoon of July 12, 2006, this was a war initiated by us, the conclusion to which was always in our hands. That it was our initiative doesn’t necessarily mean it was unjustified, but that it needed to be carried out with clear goals and for a clear benefit, and not as a response whose only goal is to survive — those questions weren’t dealt with, shadowed by the desire to join the inviting wartime consensus.
And the prime minister? The question isn’t what did he know, but rather how to perceive what he knew. In Begin’s eyes, the enemy was hateful, the Beaufort [or Belfort is a Crusader fortress in Southern Lebanon] was its threatening fortress, and Sharon and [then chief of staff] Refael Eitan were biblical heroes. The problem had nothing to do with information or intelligence, but rather with a prime minister who saw a complex situation as an existential threat of the proportions of the Holocaust, and an operation Israeli initiated as a rescue mission the likes of bombing Auschwitz. Thirty years later, the analogy to our present situation is so clear that there is no need to go into detail.