Back to the future
Israel's air force could crush Gaza or decimate Beirut, but its main mission, and that of the IDF in general, still looms: dealing with Iran's nuclear buildup. That is perhaps why the army hesitated before rushing into Gaza
Brig. Gen. Sami Turjeman is commander of the 36th Division in the Golan Heights, and is one of the most outstanding officers of his rank in the Israel Defense Forces. He is expected to be promoted this year to the rank of major general. Turjeman was head of the operations division at the General Staff during the tempestuous years of 2006 and 2007 - when the IDF embarked simultaneously on operations in both Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip, in the wake of the abduction of Gilad Shalit, and then attacked the North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria.
A few weeks ago, shortly before he set out for a visit to brigade commander Avi Peled and the Golani and Armored Corps fighters, as they undertook maneuvers not far from his headquarters in the Golan Heights, Turjeman pointed to a corner in his office. He had heard from Avigdor Kahalani, one of his predecessors in the 36th Brigade, that a secret opening to a tunnel that led to a bunker, to which the commander can escape in the event that Syrian tanks surround the command center, was concealed there.
The lines of Syrian armored columns between Damascus and the border have not been at the top of the IDF's list of concerns in recent years, nor has that country's air force. Indeed, in Turjeman's opinion, the Arabs have - in practice although not in theory - very effective air forces. He's thinking not of their airplanes, but rather of the fact that everything that hits Israel from the sky is considered "air force," and involves missile and rocket systems of different types and ranges, which are in the possession of various countries and organizations. Kiryat Shmona, Be'er Sheva, the Israel Air Force bases at Tel Nof, Hatzerim and Hatzor, and other bases and essential installations - all are within the scope of this danger.
It is no wonder the U.S. Army, which has 100 soldiers manning the large radar installation in the Negev meant to detect Iranian missiles, has hastened to assure its troops that they are not at risk.
Facing an "air force of the poor," this week Israel mainly deployed its own splendid IAF. It's an acclaimed force, and rightly so, because in Israel, there is the IDF, and then there is the air force, and they are two organizations of different levels.
The ground forces need many junior officers for a short period, whereas the air force needs junior officers for long periods. The need for the mass production of the first sort - i.e., of platoon commanders - as compared to the qualitative selectiveness used with respect to the second sort - air crews (and naval officers) - is reflected in the difference between the levels of the two organizations. This difference has been exacerbated over the years, because in the IAF the selection process continues with those who hope to climb to command and high command levels. In the ground forces, on the other hand, there is a more arbitrary or random placement for soldiers aged 18 or 19, for example, in the artillery and not in the Paratroops.
Discussions about the "land maneuvers" that are the ground forces' part of the operation in Gaza, are promissory notes still waiting to be cashed.
There cannot be an expanded operation without IAF support, both fire power and reconnaissance, especially while the ground forces have been waiting for conditions that will enable them to enter the Strip.
The IDF of the Second Lebanon War, under the command of Dan Halutz, was not all that bad, and the IDF of today, under the command of Gabi Ashkenazi, is not all that good. It is the same army that was brought out of Lebanon in 2000 by Ehud Barak, when he was prime minister, and by Ashkenazi, when he was GOC Northern Command. Parts of it are disciplined and professional, and parts are in real need of improvement.
As has always been the case with Ashkenazi, the IDF is a pistol that has had a silencer affixed to it. Only the General Staff talks, and it does so in a single voice. The IAF and the Southern Command, which have been doing most of the work, have been forbidden to speak to the media.
During the first days of the current campaign, until the disagreements in the managing quintet of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Barak, Ashkenazi and Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin began to bubble over, the politicians and generals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were enjoying a popular sense that the operation was not only justified, but also successful. In reality, this was not more true than in the parallel days of July 2006, before the hesitations and the marching in place set in, but the positive atmosphere of this week can be attributed to a combination of changes.
The general impression is that this time the launching of the (Hamas) rockets preceded the (Israeli) aerial action, rather than followed it - even though the Hezbollah attack in the north, when Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were abducted, which is what sparked Israel's offensive, also included a bombardment.
The reserves that have been called up are not intended to participate in the fighting - or to lead the protest once it is over - but rather to reinforce the troops of the standing army who are sent in to fight.
The tone of the media is positive, because the whole element of personal enmity among career army and reserve officers - and the broadcasters close to them - toward Halutz and the commander of the 91st Division, Gal Hirsch, vanished with their retirement. The bad feelings toward Halutz and Hirsch - and of Halutz toward Hirsch - have dissipated along with the entry of the new management, which replaced the commanders in 2006. The IDF, having learned the lessons of the veteran generals in the ground forces who voiced their frustrations publicly, has grown wiser and has recruited them into its service. The TV studios are the same TV studios, and the generals are the same generals, but now they are spokesmen for the establishment, not its critics.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote last month that in Lebanon, Hezbollah won "a propaganda victory" over Israel. Now it appears that it also inflicted a domestic victory within Israel concerning the image of the army. This impression is truly deceptive, just like the originality that is attributed to the name of the operation, "Cast Lead" - a recycled name that is eight and a half years old, which served to describe the events that took place on Nakba Day (the Palestinians' commemoration of what they call the "catastrophe" of the creation of Israel in 1948) in May 2000.
Gaza is a far simpler sector than Lebanon - narrow, short, bounded, flat and exposed - and even though there too explosive charges, anti-tank ambushes and suicide terrorists are waiting, in Golani they are describing it as more of a company-level war game than a brigade maneuver. What they are aspiring to achieve in Gaza is just what was accomplished in Lebanon: a situation where even if Hamas/Hezbollah is left at the end of the fighting with rockets, it won't dare fire them. If no Qassam is launched from Gaza for two and a half years, then they will see this as a major achievement, in the hope that the public that became embittered by the results of the Lebanon war will respond with satisfaction this time.
The austerity of the planners of the current operation suggests that they are aspiring to a certain, realistic degree of success, at the price of a diplomatic defeat: acceptance of Hamas rule in Gaza, both in terms of relinquishing the idea of getting rid of it, and in negotiating with it on an agreement that will lead to the end of the operation, before the price in IDF casualties and to civilian locales inside Israel, on the eve of an election, starts to become too heavy.
Such an outcome, even if it is considered better than the situation that preceded the operation, and is preferable to becoming bogged down in a prolonged stay in the Gaza Strip, will nevertheless be a badge of shame for Israel, until another explanation is needed to explain Israel's ability to make do with the outcome: Iran. Barak and Ashkenazi tried until the past few weeks to avoid the operation in Gaza, for which GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant had been pushing (with the support of the IAF) for a very long time in order to thwart the strengthening of Hamas before it reaches its peak.
On the 14th story in the IDF headquarters in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, where the defense minister and the chief of staff have their bureaus, there is concern about an even more serious problem than rockets in Ashdod and Be'er Sheva. Barak, especially, has been concerned that the IDF will be drawn into Gaza, even if not in all its brigades and divisions, but certainly with the attention of the commanders and with a burden on the air force.
Therefore, the IDF must move quickly to disengage, in order to free its attention for the paramount task of preparing a military blow to Iran, if diplomacy and deterrence fail. As long as the great threat of Iranian power is hovering, the smaller threats of Hezbollah and Hamas that derive from it will not be dispelled. Cast lead, heavy as it may be, is still easier to digest than enriched uranium.