The conference held by the Armored Corps Association at Latrun two weeks ago called to mind a meeting of trustees of the Order of British Empire. One by one, retired senior officers rose to the podium to pledge passionate allegiance to the tank, extolling its virtues over the airplane.
The veteran Armored Corps officers, whose hair has long since turned gray, see Israel's failure in Lebanon two years ago as the ultimate proof of the ground forces' importance. Had these not been neglected and pushed aside in favor of the air force, they argued, the war's results would have been completely different.
A few speakers went so far as to dwell nostalgically on the achievements of the first Lebanon war - the one in 1982 that featured Ariel Sharon, the Beirut-Damascus road and the Sabra and Chatila massacre. At this rate, in another 10 years, someone will say that Amir Peretz was a security genius ahead of his time.
But beyond the nostalgia, the Armored Corps officers raised an important issue, which has all but slipped from the eye of the public and the media. The prevalent assumption following the Second Lebanon War was that giving the air force preference over the ground forces had failed. Since the war, therefore, the army has vigorously resumed training its armored divisions.
Nevertheless, many questions remain open. Are tanks really capable of overcoming trained forces armed with antitank missiles that have already proved they can penetrate Israel's armored vehicles? Does Israel have sufficient forces to carry out a decisive ground maneuver on two fronts, such as Syria and Lebanon, at the same time? How long can the home front hold up under massive attacks while the armies continue to fight and Israel still has no protection from missiles or rockets?
The Israel Defense Forces has not reached final conclusions about these issues. The ground forces, for example, are still complaining of discrimination in resource allocation compared to the air force. Shouldn't the IDF upgrade the armor on its tanks and armored personnel carriers, even at the cost of postponing the purchase of cutting-edge war planes?
The government is not all that involved in these debates. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is familiar with the problems, but few ministers are as well-versed as he is in the issues that can determine the outcome of the next war, should one break out.
This is why the disappearance of the Meridor Report on Israel's defense doctrine is so troubling. A team of experts headed by Dan Meridor submitted the report some two and a half years ago, as then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz's term was winding to a close. Since then, Meridor has presented his conclusions and recommendations to the prime minister, his designated successor, three defense ministers, the cabinet (in three different meetings), two chiefs of staff, the IDF General Staff and other defense agencies. Most of them praised the report - a second attempt (the first was stopped about a decade ago) to update the defense doctrine drafted by David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s.
But over the past six months, debate on the report has been suspended. No real reason was provided, but now it is difficult to see how the new doctrine could be approved while Ehud Olmert remains prime minister.
The delay stems from several causes. Barak objects to the report's recommendation (which the Winograd Committee adopted) to bolster the National Security Council. The General Staff has reservations about the report's tendency to favor accurate air strikes over ground maneuvers. Some believe the report requires a thorough update in light of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War.
Other causes appear to have more to do with psychology. Politicians, like generals, prefer to give themselves as much leeway as possible. They are thus reluctant to have a written document, adopted by the cabinet, that could limit them. The media might even decide one day to judge them on the basis of the standards they themselves adopted.
Consequently, Israel remains with a defense doctrine dating back to the Ben-Gurion era - which served it well for decades, but surely requires updating.
Meridor is not alone. When it comes to conclusions about defense, the cabinet has already buried two Winograd reports plus the report of the Lipkin-Shahak Committee, which Olmert appointed to show that he was taking the first Winograd report seriously, before the second one was released.
In view of how their recommendations are treated, it is hard to believe that serious public figures would agree to serve on similar committees in the future.
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