Syria Air Strikes: How the Defense Minister Often Overrules His Generals

Opinions in the IDF General Staff are likely to be divided when it comes to military action abroad: The decisive factor is usually Defense Minister Ya'alon.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Defense Minister Ya'alon with Israeli army soldiers along the northern border. The war of attrition on the Syrian side is barely felt on the Israeli side. December 2013
Defense Minister Ya'alon with Israeli army soldiers along the northern border. The war of attrition on the Syrian side is barely felt on the Israeli side. December 2013Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Based on past experience, Israeli decisions about targeted assassinations are made in two stages: consultation between the defense minister and senior Israel Defense Forces officers, and if necessary with the heads of the intelligence community, followed by an agreement between the defense minister and the prime minister (the cabinet is not always involved). If it's a matter of intelligence that was received close to the time of the attack, the consultations are likely to take place within a very short period of time, via encrypted phone lines. In the past it has often happened that senior officers warned against carrying out such an action, whether for fear of complications or because of possible consequences relating to the timing of the action.

Opinions within the IDF General Staff are likely to be divided, with various generals presenting opposing views during the discussion, and the chief of staff does not hasten to choose between them. The decisive factor is usually the defense minister. In the past, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon adopted a belligerent public stance in these contexts and justified Israel's initiated preventive actions. He relies, among other things, on personal experience as commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, who commanded the forces in the field in the operation in which Abu Jihad, one of the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was assassinated in Tunis in 1988.

The final decision in such cases belongs to the prime minister and the defense minister, who can also ignore warnings from some of the officers and rely on the recommendations of others. If Hezbollah and Iran are correct in accusing Israel of being behind the bombing on Sunday, that may have happened this time too.

The intelligence diagnosis to the effect that neither Hezbollah nor Israel is interested in another war at present, is apparently still in place. But even in July 2006 neither Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah nor then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert understood in real time that the steps on which they had decided (a Hezbollah abduction; an Israeli attack against rockets that were hidden in the homes of Hezbollah activists) would necessarily lead to war.

Regional circumstances have changed drastically in the past eight and a half years. The ongoing civil war in Syria has weakened the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Iran and Hezbollah are now the ones setting the tone in the radical Shiite alliance. On the other hand, Hezbollah is facing an operational challenge that it didn't have in the past: the Sunni organizations that are waging a war of attrition against it in Syria and at the same time attacking it from the rear on the home front, on Lebanese territory.

The problem with this discussion is that it’s being conducted under a thick and unnecessary fog of concealment. Officially, Israel is maintaining its policy of ambiguity. It is neither confirming nor denying its role in Sunday’s attack, that killed several high ranking operatives, including Jihad Mughniyeh, a second-generation terrorist, and Gen. Mohammed Allahdadi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

While Hezbollah would prefer to respond without being drawn into a wider conflict, it’s hard to know if Israel will agree to stand down. Before Nasrallah reacts to events himself, he tends to signal his intentions through a journalist who is close to him — the editor of the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, Ibrahim Al Amin. In an article Amin wrote Monday, he sketched out the parameters of a future war with Israel, including the firing of thousands of rockets at the home front, attacks on civilian infrastructure targets and the deployment of Hezbollah forces in the Galilee. We will have to wait and see what the organization will do — or perhaps more importantly, what Iran will tell it to do.

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