18 Years On, Ehud Barak Defends Decision to Retreat

Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak / Getty Images

Last week marked 18 years since Israel fled southern Lebanon. The man responsible for it, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, notable for wearing his self-satisfaction on his sleeve, said in a radio interview on Thursday: "Then, as now, I am very proud of my decision to remove Israel Defense Forces from Lebanon." He did this, he added, despite "many reservations from the political and security establishment." In fact, Barak overcame the objections of the IDF's entire upper echelon. One wishes he had directed the same energies to overcoming Hezbollah instead.

Barak's remarks have sparked a back and forth among Israel's punditry as to the wisdom of retreating from the Security Zone Israel created in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon War. The 620-square-mile buffer zone, roughly 12 miles deep, was carved out of Lebanon in order to give Israel's citizens in the north respite from terror. But the attrition of IDF soldiers over the years to maintain the zone made Barak's 1999 campaign promise to unilaterally withdraw politically palatable.

With the wisdom of hindsight it's difficult to see how anyone, besides Barak, could consider the retreat a success. Since Israel abandoned its Security Zone, Hezbollah has graduated from small operations against Israeli outposts and convoys, into a state-within-a-state, having effectively taken over Lebanon. It is the No. 1 richest terror organization in the world with total annual income of $1.1 billion. It bristles with missiles aimed at Israel—the low estimate is 130,000—more than all the NATO countries (except the United States) combined. Their biggest can knock out whole buildings.

The Third Lebanon War is yet to happen, but Israel is already planning for it. Judging from a February 2018 Jerusalem Post article, it'll be far worse than the Second, with a daily diet of 1,500 to 2,000 rockets expected, up from the 130-to-180 per day during the Second Lebanon War. "What would the casualty rate be? Nobody knows," IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser said.

Barak doesn't deny the reality of the missiles now pointed at Israel. Nonetheless, he says his decision stopped the loss of soldiers' lives. Lt. Col. (ret.) Meir Indor, head of the Almagor Terror Victims Association, blasted Barak for this, correctly pointing out that the former PM ignored those killed during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. "Barak managed to surpass the number of lives he saved after withdrawing from Lebanon by the amount of Israeli lives lost during the war," Indor wrote.

What Indor didn't catch is that Barak, in the same radio interview, curiously used the Second Lebanon War as proof that his decision was the right one. "The whole world was with us because it was clear to everyone that we had left Lebanon," he said. This is patently untrue. Israel did not have the support of "everyone" as a quick look at European reactions to the war reveal. Israel had the backing of the United States because a friendly Bush administration was in power. It would likely have had that support to act against Hezbollah regardless. This is overlooking the fact that there wouldn't have been a Second Lebanon War if Israel had not left the Security Zone to begin with, allowing Hezbollah to flourish like a putrid weed.

Harder to quantify is the blow to Israel's credibility as a dependable ally. Israel had supported and built up the Christian-led South Lebanon Army. The SLA did much of the fighting in the Security Zone, battling Hezbollah alongside Israel. With Israel's sudden withdrawal, the SLA collapsed. Fearing retaliation, many fled to Israel, others to Europe. Those captured were tried for treason. Israel had lost an ally in a region where friends are few and far between. No doubt, Israel's behavior in Lebanon has made others think twice before collaborating with the Jewish State.

It's easy to forget the atmosphere within Israel leading up to the withdrawal. The key event perhaps was the ‘Disaster of the Helicopters,' in which two transport choppers crashed into each other on Feb. 4, 1997, killing 73 soldiers. Although this was not the work of her enemies, the tragedy led to the creation of the anti-war Four Mothers movement, which succeeded in placing the idea of unilateral withdrawal on the national agenda.

With Israel facing unrest on its southern border, the result of still another withdrawal in 2005, a new consensus appears to have emerged, one in contradistinction to the Four Mothers—that retreat is not in Israel's interests. It's a sentiment Israel's politicians ought to encourage.

David Isaac has worked for 25 years in the news business. He has reported for Investor's Business Daily, the American Enterprise Institute, Newsmax Media, and The Washington Times' news site Times247. He was awarded a Media Fellowship at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 2004. He has written, produced and directed a documentary film series on Zionist history which can be seen at ZionismU.com. He is currently reporting from the Middle East.