On the eve of Pesach, MK Effi Eitam told the nation that he now sleeps a lot better. This occured after he heard Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi tell the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about how he will make sure that at the end of the next war there will be no doubt over who won. Until then Eitam was worried about the spirit pervading the IDF command, but the briefing by the new chief of staff filled him with optimism: Ashkenazi's language was lucid, he posed clear objectives and he gave his listeners a sense of confidence that he knows what he's doing.
Fighting moods are a bad thing when they come from the chief of staff. During the 1950s, chief of staff Moshe Dayan told prime minister David Ben-Gurion that he preferred commanders who were noble stallions, ones that needed to be restrained when they exhibited excessive enthusiasm to encounter the enemy. Battalion, brigade and division commanders and their subordinates are indeed expected to be soaked in fighting spirit and ready to carry out the missions assigned to them. The members of the general staff, on the other hand, must be much more level-headed in the way they approach the political-security situation.
The Second Lebanon War has left the IDF damaged. The army feels it failed to meet expectations and has since been obsessed with a wish to make amends. A short while after the cease-fire, circles in the IDF began airing assessments that by the following summer (which is closing in) there will be a second round of fighting. The general staff concluded in a series of meetings last November that it was necessary to prepare for an offensive by Syria and Hezbollah in the summer of 2007.
In December 2006, a dispute emerged between the Mossad and military intelligence over Syria's intentions. In February, Brigadier General Yossi Beiditch, head of research at military intelligence, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Syrian leader is indeed serious about peace with Israel, on his terms, but is preparing for a confrontation because he does not want to be surprised. Last week, the chief of military intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, told the cabinet that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are preparing for an American assault against Iran in the summer, and that Syria is taking into account that Israel is actively involved, and so Damascus is preparing for all eventualities.
All this talk is dangerous. Israel emerged from the Second Lebanon War bruised, and with an eroded deterrent. It recognizes this and its enemies believe it. The mere image of a country whose wings have been clipped entices Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinians to challenge it. At the same time, the feeling of stained honor has aroused in the IDF a desire to once more raise the flag of victory and teach the hostile neighbors a lesson they will remember for a long time. There is also a feeling of plain vengeance, and a basic desire to restore to Israel its deterrent. This constellation of considerations and motives feeds a dialogue inside the general staff, which echoes beyond the conference rooms and gives Israel's enemies the impression that it is preparing for war in the coming months - whether this takes place in the Gaza Strip or at the northern border. This situation is sufficient to escalate the tension and begin the motion toward a boiling point.
The politicians were burned in the July-August 2006 conflagration, and it is safe to assume that there will be no rush to go to war, as suggested by the prime minister's statement last week that sought to calm Syrian fears of an Israeli offensive. Nonetheless, the fighting spirit now forming in the IDF - whether against Hamas or Hezbollah - has a great force that can affect the views of the prime minister and his cabinet. The chief of staff will make a serious mistake if he looks at the northern and southern fronts solely through the perspective of weapons. It would not be superfluous to remind him that his real test will be more in preventing war by restoring the deterrent capacity of the IDF, instead of ordering the army's divisions once more into battle.
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