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IDF’s Hezbollah Warning May Not Be Spin Maneuver

Cynics may question the timing of the Israel Defense Forces' warnings about Hezbollah's ambitions, but the truth is more prosaic.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An archive photo of an IDF drill in Israel's north.
An archive photo of an IDF drill in Israel's north. Credit: Hagai Aharon
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The story repeats itself every year: A senior Israel Defense Forces officer briefs military correspondents on scenarios for the next war: the enemies’ capabilities; its anticipated plans; the IDF’s response. In the background is one of the periodic battles between the army and the Finance Ministry over the size of the defense budget or the extra funds the IDF needs to cover the costs of a particular operation. At this point, the financial journalists rise up and proclaim in unison, “It’s another spin by the IDF, which is trying to frighten us.”

The truth is usually a bit less conspiratorial, and this time is no different. The military correspondents’ visit to GOC Northern Command was originally planned to take place three months ago, on June 15, long before the current budget battle erupted. It was canceled at the last minute because of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in the West Bank two days earlier.

Since I happened to be in Northern Command on July 7, the day Operation Protective Edge in Gaza was announced, I can testify that the scenarios described then were the same as the ones described at the briefing two days ago, when the visit originally scheduled for June finally took place.

When a senior officer is asked to outline the threats in his sector, he will always emphasize the dangers he considers most worrying. Hezbollah’s capabilities – more than 100,000 rockets, commando forces that have acquired operational experience in Syria’s civil war, and plans that call for temporarily invading northern Israel – are key elements of these threats.

In the same breath, the officer said that Hezbollah is currently busy with the Sunni-versus-Shi’ite fighting in Syria and Iraq, so opening another front with Israel isn’t currently high on its list of priorities. This wasn’t a campaign of intimidation aimed at securing a budget increase, but a responsible assessment of what could happen, part of the overall picture the army must deal with in almost every sector.

Those who belittle these considerations are reminiscent of those who, less than a year ago, sneered at GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman’s description of the threat posed by the attack tunnels Hamas was digging from Gaza. Then, too, Turgeman was speaking of what he knew, not carrying out some secret plot to protect his officers’ noncontributory pensions.

Serious gaps

The question of the threat posed by Hezbollah must be separated from the budget battle, which does appear to involve some significant exaggerations and exorbitant demands by the defense establishment.

The IDF says the summer’s war in Gaza cost 8.6 billion shekels ($2.4 billion), almost as much as the Second Lebanon War of 2006 fought against Hezbollah, a much stronger organization than Hamas.

The treasury estimates the cost of the Gaza war at 6.2 billion shekels (the dispute is primarily over which budgetary line items should be considered direct costs of the war, rather than how much each item actually cost).

But it’s hard to avoid the impression that the defense establishment is asking the state to take out its pen and sign a check quickly. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already said “many billions” more will be needed for defense, before the fighting in Gaza has even been investigated.

As I’ve written several times before, the Gaza war did reveal some serious gaps in the IDF’s preparedness in everything connected with fighting terrorist or guerrilla organizations, especially among the ground forces. There were problems with training, a lack of suitable equipment and flaws in operational plans.

At the same time, the army expended enormous quantities of ammunition in both air and artillery strikes. This is the IDF’s standard practice during wartime. First, it thinks that, given the urgency and risks, almost all means are legitimate. Second, it thinks there will always be someone to pick up the tab for replenishing its arsenal once the emergency ends.

Yet if this is what the army spent on a limited war against Hamas, in which it refrained from penetrating deep into Gaza’s urban areas, one can only imagine what another war against Hezbollah would cost. These are costs the Israeli economy will have trouble bearing over time.

What kind of army?

Moreover, the dispute isn’t limited to the war’s direct costs. The IDF is also demanding a budget increase for next year of no less than 11 billion shekels in light of the problems revealed by the Gaza war. But before deciding how big the defense budget should be, it would be better to first decide what kind of army we want.

The prime minister is right: The changing regional situation requires the IDF to make major adjustments, and some of them will apparently require large amounts of money. But so far, what has been going on is a political battle between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and a war of clichés between Lapid and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. None of them has bothered to conduct an orderly discussion of the lessons of the war and the changes that ought to derive from these lessons.

Instead, it seems the IDF is exploiting the opportunity to reverse some of the budget cuts imposed on it in those long-ago days before the security situation began deteriorating in June.

Perhaps, as one General Staff officer commented, we ought to retroactively change the name of the summer’s first operation – the one to find the kidnapped teens – from “bring back our brothers” (as Operation Brother’s Keeper was called in Hebrew) to “bring back our staff positions.”

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