Frozen in Place

After the war in Iraq, there is talk about the disappearance of the eastern front and the question has again been raised regarding changes in Israel's approach to defense. Pedants will say that changes to the eastern front have been mulled not since 1991 but since the Iran-Iraq War in the early 1980s.

The conclusions of a document published by the Israel Defense Forces in 1991, after the Gulf War, included the following paragraph: "Following the defeat of Iraq, the opening of an eastern military front against us, with the participation of Syria, Jordan and Iraq, seems more distant than ever before. On the other hand, the war exposed the soft underbelly of the Israeli home front. Should Israel's security theory by changed? Should there be changes in the allocation of resources between the battlefront and the home front? Has our deterrent power decreased?"

Now, too, after the war in Iraq, there is talk about the disappearance of the eastern front and the question has again been raised regarding changes in Israel's approach to defense. Pedants will say that changes to the eastern front have been mulled not since 1991 but since the Iran-Iraq War in the early 1980s. That war lasted eight years, effectively neutralizing Israel's eastern front.

At that time, there was a calming on the Egyptian front, thanks to the peace agreement, which created an important break in which Israel could have instituted fundamental changes. Instead, the country took advantage of it for only one aggressive move - the destruction of the nuclear reactor in Iraq (something the Iranians had tried to do but failed). The national energy, including human resources, were subsequently wasted in the war in Lebanon.

When the question of an eastern front was raised in 1991, it was already clear that Jordan's late King Hussein would not repeat the mistake of his indirect "support" of Iraq.

Even so, the changes made then focused only on the perspective of the new battlefield. They began at the end of Dan Shomron's term as chief of staff and reached their high point while Ehud Barak held the job. Barak gave the big push for the development of accurately guided weapons, the changes in the attrition rate on the battlefield and the rate of strikes against the enemy.

There were no fundamental changes in the broader security approach during this period, even though, at that time, the first intifada was quelled and the Oslo process had begun, a peace treaty was signed with Jordan and the Syrians were conducting serious negotiations with Israel. Despite all this, the security approach stood frozen in place.

Behind the reluctance to make far-reaching decisions stood the fear of disturbing the calm between Israel and the Arabs at a time when the IDF was going through a reorganization process. Some were also concerned that the money the IDF would save by reorganizing would be taken from it and would not be available for new construction, research and development.

In late 1997, there was a sudden awakening when David Ivri, an aide to the defense minister, initiated secret talks on the security approach. The process was not completed because the political echelon got cold feet. The politicians were apparently worried that the strategic conclusions would conflict with ideological approaches.

Reading the minutes of the talks five years after they were held is also interesting because they show how future threats were perceived at that time. The possibility of a large-scale extended armed confrontation against the Palestinians was not foreseen, although it was clear that Israel would have difficulty coping with suicide terror.

No one predicted the rise of organizations like Al-Qaida, which would turn terror into a strategic international phenomenon. Nor was any attention paid to the rearming and nuclear arming of North Korea and the effect this would have on the Middle East.

The awakening process that began in 1997 did not mature, but it was decided to cut back one military division and the planning department, headed by Major-General Shlomo Yanai, recommended raising the terror threat to a higher position on the list of priorities.

The problem that Israel faces today is not only military, and not primarily budgetary, as many in the Finance Ministry believe. Rather than a reexamination of the security approach that focuses on the military, what Israel needs more than anything is a reexamination of the national defense policy, including a discussion of resources, issues concerning the peace process and, of course, the question of what we are defending on a do-or-die basis.

This is a far broader task than focusing on what the IDF general staff is doing.