With Eye on Gaza, IDF Changes Tune

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IDF soldiers facing Gaza during Operation Defensive Edge, on Aug. 3, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Armies, and the Israel Defense Forces isn’t different in this sense from its global equivalents, are mostly disciplined and adaptive organizations. Therefore, officers don’t trash-talk the results of a war under a serving chief of staff, even as affable a commander as previous Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, and not the somewhat dictatorial leadership of some of his predecessors.

In the six months between the end of the war in Gaza and the end of Gantz’s tenure, the army cleaved to the narrative it drew up: This was a magnificent war. There is not and cannot be a war without mistakes and mishaps, but our forces fought like lions, Iron Dome intercepted the missiles and the divisions destroyed the attack tunnels that the Palestinians had dug under the border with the Gaza Strip. Hamas remained in power at the end of the campaign only because the politicians did not give us the order to topple it.

Gantz left the job a month and half ago, and the tune is slowly changing. Bit by bit, the more complex picture is emerging. It is evident in the actions of the new chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, and also, for the moment half-heartedly, in statements by heads of the defense establishment.

For instance, someone we will call a senior defense official said on Tuesday that the first order Eisenkot gave with the (late) drafting of the 2015 IDF work plan was: Improving army readiness for possible conflicts is top priority, with an emphasis on training. The drills will come before any other expenditure. They are not to be stopped or halted for any reason.

In the past two years, the IDF has consciously undercut training by regular units and reserve forces due to budgetary constraints. Moreover, since last June, just before the kidnapping of three teens in Gush Etzion that was Hamas’ first shot in what became a long summer war, the IDF announced the complete cessation of drills at the height of a budget war with the treasury. The military logic at the time was that this was part of an “asymmetrical year.” In light of a lack of appropriate resources, all training was focused in the first half of the year.

IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot with his predecessor Benny Gantz at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, February 16, 2015.Credit: AFP

And now? “Asymmetric planning is a bad idea, if you have no good reason to think that resources will be refilled at some point.”

And what about the handling of Hamas tunnels? In retrospect, this senior officer admits “underground is a battle dimension that we did not fully understand before the war. What changed afterwards is the processing and internalization of intelligence,” most of which the army had beforehand.

As part of the new understandings, the IDF is investing hundreds of millions of shekels in preparing for underground fighting, doubling the size of the Engineering Corps’ Yahalom unit, which specializes in this type of fighting, and establishing a unit to coordinate all the work by all military entities on the tunnel problem.

Similar acknowledgement can be heard regarding the extension of the fighting to 51 days – far longer than the IDF planned – and the use of huge quantities of armaments and munitions.

Along with these understandings, the army hopes to complete this year with a multi-year plan, for the first time in five years. Fluctuations in the state budget and regional instability have prevented that. The army now awaits the Locker Committee’s report on the defense budget, which will be submitted to the new cabinet. In the meantime, the IDF is living from month to month and continues to implement cutbacks determined by Gantz more than a year ago.

However, comprehensive changes, even as lessons from the war with Hamas, will require more than the determination of a new chief of staff. To complete the process, Eisenkot needs the support of politicians, the approval of a multi-year plan, and stabilization of budget planning for a number of years going forward.

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