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Preparing for Israel's Previous War, Not Its Next Peace

Operation Pillar of Defense showcased many of the army’s strengths while emphasizing the frustration of fighting terror organizations.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Neither the military aspect of Pillar of Defense which from the outset was cast in cautious, modest terms nor the operation’s achievements (a senior major general speaking frankly yesterday said there is no guarantee hostilities will not resume within weeks) can cover up the operation’s political failure, which flies in the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pretensions.

Once more, the man who built his career on the image of being an uncompromising fighter against terrorism, yielded after freeing murderers in return for Gilad Shalit to terror. An unavoidable necessity, perhaps. But if so, on what does his claim to leadership rest?

Netanyahu was a diplomat for seven years, first in Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C., and then as ambassador to the United Nations. In that period he did not learn the art of international maneuvering, or how to advantageously turn political “levers” so as to realize a national vision. The arena was either too sympathetic (the Reagan administration, Congress, AIPAC) or merely theatrical (the “Waldheim Affair,” TV, speeches to the home crowd). After seven years as prime minister (in two nonconsecutive terms), he cannot show even one staunch political-diplomatic asset.

Despite Netanyahu’s and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s criticism of the management of the 2006 campaign in Lebanon, they failed to express any regret for not upgrading the rocket-interception system when each held influential governmental positions even though proposals to that effect were frequently submitted and made public.

Barak deserves much credit, especially as chief of staff after America’s demonstration of the effectiveness of precision-guided munitions in Iraq in 1991. It was Barak who took the Israel Defense Forces into the sphere of advanced technology. However, for reasons of budgetary and manpower constraints and also his worldview he (like his predecessors and successors in the General Staff) preferred the primary, offensive effort, to the point of neglecting the secondary and defensive moves. He was not farsighted enough to devise a strategy of counter-response to the rockets of Hezbollah and Hamas.

To describe those who preferred other systems over Iron Dome as “opponents” is oversimplifying matters. Iron Dome was produced as part of an expedited “crash” program, bypassing methodical and slow regulatory processes. It was “too successful” in the sense that it competed for defense funding for other systems, most prominently fighter planes such as the F-35. The air force is furious at the portrayal of its pilots three of whom, Maj. Gens. Ido Nechushtan and Amir Eshel, and now Nimrod Shefer, served as heads of the IDF Plans and Policy Directorate as conservatives who opposed the intercept system. Not so, they say. After all, air force bases are the first beneficiaries of the system’s protection, and it is a vital element for keeping an offensive going, albeit within varying parameters.

Being left behind

In the face of Syria and, of course, against Iran, planes still retain a critical edge. The air force will not forgo another F-35 in favor of another Iron Dome battery.

Before you build a dome, you must first place your feet firmly on the ground, said one pilot.

In the 1960s, Israel’s relative advantage was encapsulated in the interplay between air and armored might. But the Arab armies, with Soviet help, found a tailor-made answer to this in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weapons. The Israeli advantage was restored in the 1970s though only in the air through the distinctive connection between intelligence and operations. In Lebanon in 1982 and afterward, it was repeatedly clear that the land army was being left behind.

At present, preservation of the IDF’s relative advantage lies in extracting the most from the technology of information gathering, control-and-command and smart weapons, and in the excellent interface between intelligence (Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service) and the firing systems, particularly aerial ones.

A decade ago, in Operation Defensive Shield, the commander of the Paratroops Brigade, (then) Col. Aviv Kochavi, wondered how many armed Palestinians might be waiting for his forces in the Nablus sector. “Between 200 and 2,000,” he was told. Now, as director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Kochavi was able to provide the air force and the forces camped around Gaza with amazingly accurate operational intelligence.

For years, since the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War and more particularly after the IDF stopped fighting armies and started to clash with organizations every encounter has ended in a draw. The cumulative result is negative: weariness and a lost sense of purpose.

From the point of view of the other side Hezbollah and Hamas (and before that, the Palestine Liberation Organization) the round of fighting is the message, and hanging in there is success. The solution to this is necessarily political, though one supported by military might and willingness to use it to enforce agreements between the sides that are hammered out on paper or given that print is said to be dead orally.

The cyclicity of violence on the borders which is indifferent to the identity of the leaders on the Israeli side is frustrating. At most, what happens is that the operational branches, under pressure of possible future commissions of inquiry, prepare for the previous war. Above them, in the highest political ranks, no one is preparing seriously for the next peace.

An explosion and smoke following Israeli strikes in Gaza City on Saturday, November 17.Credit: Reuters

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