On Independence Day, which comes in two weeks, the 59th year of the State of Israel - the year of the anti-tank weapon - will come to an end. It was a year in which missiles and anti-tank explosive devices opened the campaign in Lebanon with a Hezbollah ambush against a patrol of reservists near Zar'it, shaped the Northern Command's wariness of ground operations - and await the IDF in the Gaza Strip. A year in which the illusion that Israel will be surrounded by demilitarized strips evaporated. Only one neighbor, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, can be considered a reliable security partner. Egypt, the pioneer of Arab reconciliation with Israel, is not helpful, in part because it also borders on the Gaza Strip. This point of friction, and the growing strength of Hamas, can only be disrupted with a takeover of Palestinian Rafah, something that would take many months.
Into this situation marches the new chief of staff, the last one to hold this station who will have served in the IDF during the Yom Kippur War - reminiscing about a past that only gets better with years. Gabi Ashkenazi aspires to an IDF under his command that is unequivocally victorious in every campaign. This is a natural objective and one that is desirable for a man in his position. How can one prepare an army for an honorable defeat, a tie, or a partial gain? But if his intention is to say that Lebanon last year diverged from the norm, he is on shaky ground from a factual point of view.
During the last war that ended with a clear Arab defeat at the hands of the IDF, the Six-Day War, Ashkenazi was in 7th grade. Since the War of Attrition, however, and for the past three and a half decades, the IDF has not achieved a clear victory over Arab armies, neither in terms of gains nor cost. On the basis by which he measures things, during his career - from private to general - Ashkenazi was never part of a really victorious army.
The clear military victories, in 1956 and 1967, were achieved when Israel surprised Egypt and initiated the war. With the exception of a one-off operation against an existential threat, such as the Iranian nuclear program, it is today difficult to believe that the government would decide to strike first. The decision makers would be concerned that they would be unable to prove to the public, the bereaved families or to a committee of inquiry, that the problems that emerged following a premeditated offensive were justified by having saved us the heavy cost of suffering a surprise attack at the hands of the enemy. Israeli society of the 21st century prefers a short and limited response to an initiated and drawn-out operation. During Operation Defensive Shield, which followed hundreds of casualties in terrorist operations at home, public support was there; but following a battle with many casualties in Jenin, the reservists and others rebelled against Operation Magen Habayit, what was intended to be an operation in the Gaza Strip, and contributed to its prevention.
Differentiating between the fronts is artificial. The pullout from southern Lebanon, which Ashkenazi excelled in carrying out, contributed to - but did not cause - the Palestinian attack against Israel in September 2000. The military response to that offensive undermined the ability of the IDF to deal with Hezbollah six years later, which in turn spurs on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and so forth.
It is both impractical and unfair to disengage the army from the policy that directs it and from the fact that it is part of society, within which and on whose behalf it operates. Here, for example, are two official bits of data from the U.S. army, which explain to a foreign observer something regarding its overall context and the way it conducts itself. Among the millions of American 17-24 year-olds eligible for the draft, if it were to be renewed in a time of emergency, 22 percent would be rejected for being overweight, following the disqualification of 40 percent on medical grounds or for having criminal records. In the manual on how bereaved families should be informed of the loss of their soldier relative, it is stated specifically that no uniformed representative should be sent with alcohol on his or her breath.
Israeli society is not there yet, but the quality of its army is facing a real threat of deterioration. According to research of the behavioral sciences department of the General Staff, during the 1980s and 1990s, among the officers with the rank of captain who were debating whether to stay in the army, the good ones tended to leave. (When officers who stay reach the rank of lieutenant colonel, the picture became more balanced, because anyone who had not adapted to the rules of the system would not be evaluated as being "good" for the army). At the behavioral sciences department, they refused to reveal if the data is also valid for recent years.
Ashkenazi's emphasis on a clear victory in every war should be interpreted not as eagerness for battle, but the opposite: as seeking to minimize the military confrontations only to those for which the IDF can assess in advance its capacity to gain a clear victory. An army knows the character of its people. This is theoretical. The practical test, in the Gaza Strip, is expected a moment after the end of the year of the anti-tank weapon.
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