The IDF's Dark Secret – an Utter Lack of Policy

Israel's security establishment will continue to develop hardware and tactics to contend with developing threats on the other side. But without agreement on a long-term strategy at the political level, it will be hard to sustain a defense.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

It would be presumptuous to think we can prognosticate how the Middle East will look in the years ahead, to predict the strategic context in which Israel will operate, and whether we will be on the eve of a war, in the midst of one, or in a postwar situation. The same is true regarding developments on the domestic front, which - in the way of conservative entities that rest on lessons of the past - only moves forward while simultaneously looking backward.

In the 1950s, the Israel Defense Forces sanctified the infantry; it was late by at least a decade in grasping the centrality of armor. The air force continues to focus on training for dogfights between manned aircraft - even though the last encounter of this type occurred here in the week of Jonathan Pollard's arrest, in November 1985. The commander of the IAF will always have a combat background as the member of an air crew. In theory, he could be a navigator. But in practice he will be a pilot, because the navigation profession will disappear when the advanced aircraft will be the single-seat F-35. At the same time, there will continue to be a growing centrality of two other systems: unmanned aircraft, and air defense, formerly known as antiaircraft.

The IDF's clear-cut superiority in air and armor combat did not lead the Arabs to give up. Rather, they adopted responses that suited their armies: missiles large and small, of an antiaircraft, antitank and anti-population variety. The air force guffawed when it was offered Patriot missiles, which were originally developed to combat surface-to-surface missiles and were converted in the wake of an American-Soviet pact on aircraft interception, even though they could be reinstalled to intercept missiles.

This was three years before 1991, when Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles found Israel helpless - apart from an emergency reinforcement of American Patriot batteries, for which part of the price was forgoing any Israeli military action in Iraq. The lesson Israel learned prompted it to develop three generations of the Arrow antiballistic missile, which two decades later has yet to be fired. Maybe it was a deterrent and maybe not, but the fact is it has not yet been put to the test.

Armed forces build themselves up by means of five-year plans, based on a framework of financial resources, equipment, technology and manpower; usually, it's true, only in annual doses, but with long-term commitments that it is costly to violate. They have to be founded on working assumptions about which force will be deployed against which threat, and according to which budget.

IDF Ground Forces chief Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman recently described "the existing and anticipated range of threats." It includes "genuine and non-genuine areas of non-governability" - Sinai, South Lebanon, in the future perhaps the east bank of the Jordan and east of the Golan Heights - which will accord "terror elements flexibility to pose threats of disturbances, abduction, steep-trajectory firing and infiltrations." He also discussed "advanced Arab armies falling into the hands of extremist Islamic elements," particularly in Egypt and Syria (though also in Jordan and perhaps Iraq too ). There are also the current threats posed by Hezbollah, Hamas and the other "terrorist organizations that are deployed on the borders with camouflaged launching systems and defensive systems in complex and built-up areas."

Turgeman, of course, ascribes to the ground forces an important role in responding to these threats: maneuvering to neutralize the main force threatening Israel; seizing key areas that will force the enemy to stop fighting; conquering the primary launch areas in order to reduce the threat to the civilian rear; striking at organizations and shortening the war ("avoiding attrition on the borders and in the rear, avoiding a war of prolonged reciprocal assaults" ). These slick formulations hide a dark family secret: In the case of the IDF, what's lacking for planning is a clear political policy line, from which security is also supposed to be derived.

Rotting from within

What does Israel want, exactly? What is the height of its aspirations, having realized that it cannot both obtain peace and hold onto the territories? What form of balance will satisfy it? The continuation of the existing situation is intolerable. Israel is rotting from within. An interval of a few years before the resumption of a Palestinian, Arab and Muslim onslaught against Israel will not be beneficial to Israel's ability to defend itself.

The background to the 1948 war was the Arabs' refusal to accept the partition plan of 1947. The background to the Six-Day War of 1967 was the Arabs' refusal to accept the 1949 armistice lines. The background to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 was the Arabs' refusal to accept the lines of June 10, 1967. The formula of "land for peace" - whose full implementation Israel and Egypt evaded - has underlain the relations between the two countries since Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977. The same formula will guide the efforts of the international Quartet - the United States, Europe, the United Nations and Russia - when the "Friends of Syria" shift from addressing President Bashar Assad's war against his opponents to achieving peace in exchange for the return of the Golan Heights.

If Israel wants so badly to eliminate the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, logic dictates that it act - possibly in secret - to put an end to the 42 years of rule by the Assad family, and to achieve a political and security settlement with the new regime. After all, the Iranian nuclear project is being presented as the greatest of the existential threats, with no effort to be spared in order to reduce it. That, at any rate, is the theory. In practice, Israel has so far recoiled at paying the set price for removing Syria from Iran's sphere of influence.

Katzrin, Had Nes, Ma'aleh Gamla and all the rest in the Golan add up to almost 100 Ulpana neighborhoods in Beit El. An evacuation will be so politically costly that, without saying so explicitly, Israel's governments are ready to risk another war or to capitulate only after a crisis with the president in the White House.

Israel's concrete and psychological dependence on American aid - political, security and economic - is the decisive factor in the considerations of the government and the IDF. In July 2006, the principal military plan for Lebanon assumed that a blow to the state infrastructure there would produce intolerable pressure on Hezbollah to give in. The plan took American agreement to this method as a given. Along came George W. Bush, however, and prohibited Ehud Olmert from allowing the commander of the air force to execute the plan.

Now, as though Barack Obama's relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weren't already far worse than those between Bush and Olmert, government and General Staff spokesmen are again threatening that they will hold the central government of Lebanon responsible for Hezbollah rocket barrages. But what if the president - especially Obama in a second term - says no?

The American "reassessment" in the spring of 1975, when President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pressed Israel to agree to another pullback in Sinai, to a few kilometers east of the Mitla and Gidi passes, will be child's play compared to the leverage Obama will exert in the face of Israeli refusal in the Syrian or Palestinian arena (where, under American auspices, state institutions continue to be built, pending any renewal of negotiations with either party ). That will be the context within which national security policy will be forged after the next Knesset elections and the formation of the next government.

The parallel between the attacks on the lone nuclear reactors of Iraq and Syria, and a possible attack on a series of nuclear infrastructure installations in Iran - as mooted by the proponents of such an attack - is misleading, not to say false. In 1981 and in 2007, surprise sorties were carried out on Iraq and Syria respectively, without advance warning and the beating of war drums by the media that only increases the confrontational atmosphere between Jerusalem and Washington. Neither of the operations affected the chemical, biological and missile capability of Iraq and Syria. That may be less destructive than nuclear capability, but it is scary enough to have sent Israelis to their gas-mask kits (which not everyone had ) at least three times - in 1991, 1998 and 2003.

In the spring of 1997, during the period of the first Netanyahu government, an Israeli colonel at the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, wrote a research paper on "Israel's Security in the 21st Century: Risks and Opportunities." The author, who was aided by instructor-adviser Capt. John Daly, was an infantry officer who was then serving in the Golani Brigade and as commander of the territorial brigade in the West Bank. He would go on to become commander of the Golani Brigade, military secretary to prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, commander of a reserve division, commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, chief of operations in the General Staff and GOC Northern Command. His name is Gadi Eizenkot, and he is now the leading candidate to become deputy chief of staff and, subsequently - from February 2014 - the next chief of staff.

Israel's history, Eizenkot explained to his colleagues in the American army, "is studded with periods of protracted conflict intertwined with short periods of relative peace." The five principles of security doctrine, according to Eizenkot - who granted governments too much credit in the political-policy realm - were and are "investment of all the national resources on a foundation of security and stability; utilizing the country's full might to achieve peace with the Arab states; striving for an alliance with a world power; defining the proper use of force, including preemptive strikes; and building a deterrent capability." The last words would seem to refer to the strategic dimension.

Already then, 15 years ago, Eizenkot adopted a moderate approach. For a durable, lasting peace to be attained, he wrote, it is essential for all sides to feel they are in a position of power. "The solution to the growing problem of terrorism in the region will come only by expanding the peace agreements, such as the interim agreement between Israel and the PLO, or in cooperation between states." In other words, Israel cannot force its neighbors or the Palestinians to accept it unconditionally. He praised American aid, both substantively and "as a basis for psychological deterrence that strengthens Israel's status in the Arab world and diminishes the probability of war."

In Eizenkot's view, "By virtue of Israel's commitment to the United States, as a strategic partner, Israel must take into account the American approach and coordinate with it in advance moves ahead of extensive military operations. Israel must [also] understand that it cannot be a lone element in the Middle East policy of the United States. If the United States focuses on Israel alone, both are liable to lose out. It is essential to balance U.S.- Israeli relations within the overall context of American interests in the region.

"Leaving conquered territories in peace agreements and losing strategic depth could make Israel vulnerable, but as long as the United States respects its commitment in the format of the return of Sinai to Egypt, the region will retain its stability even in a period of crisis."

Eizenkot is not alone in holding these views within the top ranks of the IDF. Disastrously for Israel, the senior military echelon continues to hum that one of the goals of every large-scale campaign is to push the next round farther into the future, and give the civilian policy makers time to achieve agreements - even though those policy makers flinch at the political implications of such agreements.

The air force, the ground forces, Military Intelligence, the navy, the Shin Bet, the Mossad and all the rest are effectively riding gunshot for caravans of pioneers in the Wild West. They are essential to protect the wagons from hostile natives, but it is not for them to decide the caravan's destination. They look with desperation at those who are supposed to lead it but hesitate to move forward and instead go round and round, while the caravan and its defenders are left open to ongoing attack by arrows and bullets.



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