The High Price of Israel's Hubris

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In 2002, the Pentagon offered to supply Israel with "bunker-buster" bombs, capable of punching deep into the enemy's underground defenses. Israel's air force chief at the time, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, — who, as Chief of Staff, is currently commanding Israel's air, sea and land strikes in Lebanon — rejected Washington's offer, claiming that Israel had its own superb weapons. But with the "bunker-busters", says a senior Tel Aviv intelligence source, Israel could have knocked out most of Hizballah's rocket-launchers and possibly brought the war to an early close.

Instead, as the war drags into a fifth week, Hizballah is still pounding Israel's northern cities with over 150 rockets a day. Though Israeli intelligence determined early on exactly where most of those rockets were being fired from — launchers hidden in 38 underground bunkers, burrowed 6 yards down on rocky hilltops across southern Lebanon — Halutz's vaunted Israeli-made "air fuel" bombs have failed to destroy them. So last month, a top intelligence source told TIME, Israel put in an urgent request for precision-guided, 5,000 lb "bunker-buster" bombs. The Bush Administration complied, but it will take several weeks for the bombs to be fitted onto Israeli jets; Israel has also requested an urgent delivery of short-range rockets armed with cluster bombs from the U.S., according to the New York Times. But by the time any of this advanced arsenal arrives, a United Nations cease-fire will probably be imposed banning Israeli air strikes. "If we'd had the bunker-busters in the first few days," laments this senior intelligence officer, "We'd be in an entirely different situation today against Hizballah."

Today's 'situation' is not one that agrees with most Israelis. Promised a swift, knock-out punch against Hizballah's Islamic militiamen, Israelis are now being told that in order to neutralize Hizballah — forget about destroying them — they must brace for a bloody ground attack in Lebanon that could cost hundreds of soldiers' lives. Increasingly, Israelis are asking: how could a militia force of only 4,000 fighters withstand a prolonged beating by the mightiest army in the Middle East — and still keep pelting Israeli cities with rockets?

If a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire goes into effect — and diplomats suggested Friday that they were close to a truce deal backed by a 15,000 strong international force — the after-shock of the Lebanon war is expected to shake-up the top echelons of the Israeli military, and it may even threaten Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition government. Israelis overwhelmingly supported Olmert's initial decision to strike hard against Hizballah. But the latest opinion polls by Yediot Ahronot newspaper show a drop in the public's confidence with Olmert, his war cabinet and with the generals.

That confidence nose-dived earlier this week after Olmert and his ministers began quarrelling furiously over the course of the war. A once decisive prime minister was looking dithery. A major ground offensive was twice postponed by Olmert, though there were reports Friday that Olmert had finally decided to go forward with the operation. The Israeli press reported scalding rows between Olmert and his foreign minister — who pressed for a diplomatic solution when Olmert was pondering an all-out attack — and between Olmert and the defense minister and his army generals, who wanted to land a major blow against Hizballah on Thursday when the prime minister was stricken with doubts over such a risky move. At the same time Halutz sidelined his northern commander, responsible for the day-to-day running of the ground war. Ma'ariv newspaper columnist Ben Caspit fumed: " This campaign was conducted negligently, hesitantly, indecisively. When we needed to attack, we waited. When we should have waited, we attacked. "

As Chief of Staff, Haltuz may end up taking most of the blame. A no-nonsense fighter pilot who was the favorite of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — to the extent that some insiders say Sharon was grooming Halutz, not Olmert, to replace him some day as prime minister — Halutz, 58, at first impressed Israelis with his Top Gun swagger and aviator glasses. Once asked how it felt to drop a bomb on people, he replied: " I feel a light bump to the plane as a result of the bomb's release. A second later and it's gone, and that's all. That is what I feel. "

Waving aside the offer of American-made "bunker-busters" is only one example of Halutz's famous hubris. In a remark that will surely haunt him during the inevitable rash of post-war inquiries, Halutz said on July 14th, "In this day and age, with all the technology we have, there is no reason to start sending ground troops in." A month later, he was ready to order in thousands of troops as the only way to defeat Hizballlah. Granted, Haltuz made the comment after his air force managed to destroy most of Hizballah's arsenal of long-range missiles, capable of reaching Tel Aviv, in the opening salvos of the conflict. Back then, it seemed only a matter of days, or hours, before an Israeli smart-bomb would find its way to the lair of Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah. That possibility now seems a longshot.

With tanks revving their engines and over 20,000 troops already inside Lebanon, Olmert has had good reason to be cautious about an expanded ground invasion. As of Friday, the war has cost 124 Israeli lives, 84 of them soldiers. The 1982 Lebanon war bogged Israeli forces down in Lebanon for 18 years and was a disaster. Olmert was told that a major thrust 14 miles north to the Litani river and beyond, as envisioned by Halutz and the other generals, could drag on for another six weeks and leave hundreds of Israeli soldiers dead. Worst of all, the generals told Olmert that they could only guarantee taking out "70%" of Hizballah's rocket capacity. A cease-fire suddenly started looking good. On Thursday Olmert had decided to wait several days for a U.N. resolution, despite his generals' urgings to roll the tanks, but a day later he seemed to have changed his mind once again.

Once the cease-fire starts, both sides will surely claim victory. Nasrallah will declare himself a new champion of the Arab world for having survived the Israeli onslaught and terrorized 1.5 million Israelis with his blindly flung rockets. (In Palestine's West Bank, recordings of his speeches and ballads of Hizballah warriors are hot sellers.) The Israelis can argue they pushed back Hizballah from the border, killed hundreds of their fighters and replaced enemy militiamen along the border with regular Lebanese army troops and tough international forces. Israel may even be able to exchange its own Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners for two captive Israeli soldiers.( A third soldier was kidnapped by Palestinians militants Hamas, and a senior Hamas official told TIME that his release will depend on what Hizballah decides to do with its two Israeli hostages.) But many Israelis are worried that if they stop fighting now, they will have lost a weapon far more valuable than any "bunker-buster" — the Israeli army's aura of invincibility. And for that loss in this Lebanese war, more than any other casualty, Olmert and his top generals may pay dearly. - With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Nablus and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem