Iran Deal Robs Israel of Its Main Enemy. So What Now?

Israel may be forced to freeze its plans for a preemptive strike, allowing the Israeli military to return to its proper dimensions. There may even be room for a strategic move of the diplomatic kind.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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An Israel Air Force F-15 taking off.
An Israel Air Force F-15 taking off.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

On October 25, 1956, four days before the Sinai Campaign started and before the Israeli cabinet had given its approval for IDF operations in the Sinai, IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan gathered the General Staff and justified to them linking up with France and Britain against Egypt. Israel must, said Dayan, "One, carry out our operation in a manner that we will benefit as much as possible from the actions of others. By comparison, we are riding a bicycle and they are riding a motor vehicle, and it is worthwhile for us to grab on. Two, we must be sure not to be run over by that same car."

Last week, in the Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, where then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion lay ill during the Sinai Campaign (and where, as the former authority, in May 1967 he tormented the then-IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin until he had a breakdown), Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel presented a logical structure that complemented Dayan's from six decades earlier. Eshel is more than just an outstanding Air Force commander. He is a central member of the "cabinet" of Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who is a year younger than him, alongside deputy chief of staff Yair Golan, one of only two major generals to have held that position since 2008.

The question that interested him last week at the conference dedicated to Operation Focus (Moked), the massive airstrikes that opened the Six-Day War in 1967, which were carried out by surprise and with amazing success - with former Air Force commander and Deputy Chief of Staff Ezer Weizmann being the main proponent of its planning and implementation - was whether the Air Force was capable of repeating its achievements and surprise in a new, though not identical, version of the preemptive attack.

The summary of Eshel's doctrine: Yes, the Air Force has incredible capabilities, much greater than those in 1967, to carry out and surprise; and it is important that the decision makers, the political leadership, trust in its existence and its ability to carry out any order - as long as the double price of a preemptive strike is clear in advance in order to manage expectations with the cabinet (and the public) beforehand.

The price that will have to be paid

The first part of the price will have to be paid to the powers in the form of relations with Israel. For example, in the wording of the cease-fire resolution, which will be presented to the UN Security Council. If Israel attacks out of the blue, without a specific justification, it will take the risk of global enmity and even sanctions against it. Dayan's bicycle was French-made, and suffered an embargo from de Gaulle - and now they are American made; in October 1973, after the supply of Phantom jets and air-to-surface missiles was made conditional on the commitment to avoid a preemptive airstrike, it was one of Dayan's considerations (and of prime minister Golda Meir) against such an attack, alongside the fear of pressure for a withdrawal from the territories is Israel was painted as the aggressor. And even if these countries will not be enthusiastic about harming Israel, unions and other organizations could very well sabotage the supply chain of weapons and other essential items.

The second part of the price to be paid will be handed to the Israeli homefront. The Air Force will hit 1,000 targets a day, 2,000 on the fateful first two days of the campaign, but the home front will suffer thousands of rocket and missile attacks, since the entire offensive forces can't go after the rocket launchers, and the entire defensive forces won't be assigned - or will be adequate - to intercept the volleys at the homefront; there will be other high priority missions such as defending airbases and infrastructure targets. As nimble the Air Force will be in its operations, defense will be only partial, also because strengthening these defenses will ruin the surprise and leave signs that will send the enemy (and especially its leaders) into hiding - or ambushes. The IDF realized this too late during the period of the reprisal operations in the 1950s, which ended with the 18 victims of Qalqilya just two weeks before that very same General Staff meeting headed by Dayan: The stimulus (terror attack) provided everyone with a warning of the response (the raid).

The Air Force has proved something of its power to operate nimbly and in a crowded airspace, but without any significant opposition, in Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense, and Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. It was impressive in its coordination between fighter planes, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles - and between all these and the ground forces. But we cannot draw a conclusion from this that victory is guaranteed against more determined and better armed enemies; and even if the scales of military force will lean to Israel's side, it is the diplomatic results that will determine the outcome - the framework of the ceasefire (speedy is very much desirable) and the progress in its wake to an agreement.

One of the lessons of recent years is that it is worthwhile for Israel to grit its teeth, overcome its desire for revenge and call for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to come out of his bunker, where he has been sheltering since July 2006; because Israel needs an address, for a representative and authorized leadership to talk with and reach an agreement. The supreme consideration is once again not if Nasrallah's successor will be better or worse for Israel than he is, but whether without Nasrallah, or the present leadership of Hamas, there will be anyone to talk to in order to prevent a continued war of attrition.

Dayan, in that same meeting with his small band in on the secrets in the General Staff (and not all of them knew all the secrets), noted that "our plans always included starting the war and fierce bombardments of the Egyptian air force in order to destroy their air power" - in other words, an unripe Operation Focus, over a decade before the Air Force was really read to carry it out; since, as the person who was really the chief planner of the operation, retired brigadier general Rafi Sibron, said last week that the self-knowledge of the pilots and the systems that planned, armed, controlled and trained for the operation was no less important than the intelligence on the enemy.

The surprise was not wasted in 1956 and was preserved for 1967, without the Egyptians being prepared for it (for example by building underground hangers for their warplanes or by preparing to rapidly repair the runways), since according to Dayan: "This time, because we believe that some of the work will be done by others - we will not do it. If it turns out that we made a mistake, it could be a mistake we will pay for dearly."

Instead of Egypt then, we can now write Iran; instead of the British and the French - the Americans. The Lausanne deal, whose completion by June 30 will postpone the attainment of Iranian nuclear weapons until 2025 to 2030, has stolen from the IDF one of its main enemies. An enemy whose threat is the reference scenario, according to which the forces are built and prepared, and the operations are planned for. When Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel, it had a clear influence on the IDF's order of battle (fewer regular armored divisions) and the equipment budgets, training and active reserve service. Transferring Iran from a concrete enemy to a more fluid threat on the list of enemies that the IDF is preparing to counter in a greater war, could have a similar influence, especially in the aerial sphere.

The Congress, which Israel is so enthusiastic to involve in the process, seems combative today, but it is fickle and could well put on the brakes and not just speed up, mostly for internal reasons relating to the balance of powers and party considerations. In May 1967, Levi Eshkol's government was paralyzed and it failed in its efforts to decide on carrying out Operation Focus as the kick off for the campaign in Gaza and Sinai (Dayan, who was appointed defense minister, expanded the plan), because they wanted to let the diplomatic process in Paris run its full course (France was the supplier of the Mirage jets and surface- to-surface missiles) and in Washington, with the mission of Foreign Minister Abba Eban.

The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, was a mutual friend of President Lyndon Johnson and Israel. Goldberg later told how Johnson called him after Eban's visit to the White House and expressed his worries that he went too far in his commitment to military action to break the Egyptian blockade on the sea lanes to Eilat. Goldberg, a former Supreme Court justice, calmed Johnson down: Eban also visited him and heard that the president's commitment was subject to constitutional processes, in other words to the agreement of the Congress.

One of the reasons for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's complacency on the morning of June 5, 1967, despite his general estimate that an Israeli attack was expected; was the mission of his Vice President Zakaria Mohieddin, who was considered pro-American, to Washington. Almost fifty years later, when the Iranian leadership is following to a certain extent in the footsteps of Anwar Sadat and adopting the "Infitah" Sadat's economic policy of "opening the door" to private investment (necessarily to the West, though given the situation in the 21st century not only to them), an Israeli attack during the diplomatic contacts between the six powers and Tehran would be viewed as treachery, similar to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the same time Japanese messages continued to arrive at the State Department in Washington; and would lead to a harsh American response.

All these considerations against an Israeli attack to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure would not apply to the Israeli-Iranian clashes in the ground floor and basement of the relations between the two countries, whether directly or through proxies; but for that the IDF doesn't require any reinforcement – not to its means nor to its level of preparation.

The Iranian threat will be reduced to the level of the Iraqi threat in the period between the two wars the Americans fought against Saddam Hussein, from 1991 to 2013. During that period, before the withdrawal from Gaza and the increased missile threat from Hezbollah and Hamas, the IDF viewed Syria as its chief enemy. For its mission in the Iranian sphere, the IDF defined for itself (as usual, the government evaded this responsibility) more or less: The goal is to deter Iran from intervening militarily in a war between Israel and one of its neighbors or the Palestinian Authority. The accomplishment required to achieve this included a significant attack on a small number of specific targets over two days, the destruction of strategic infrastructure (especially nuclear), attacking the surface-to-surface missiles and preventing the sending of troops to reinforce Hezbollah and the countries abutting Israel.

With the exception of the nuclear infrastructure targets, which have been taken off the agenda because of the diplomatic constraints, what the Air Force and Navy have been building over the past decade, along with Military Intelligence and the Mossad, is more than enough to deal with the other Iranian challenges. Additional investments will be superfluous - it would be better to put them to other uses, in the IDF (as the General Staff has recommended) or for civilian use.

The decade after the Sinai Campaign was quiet, relatively, and was used to raise the standard of living, alongside the building up of the IDF in the air and with tanks, as well as the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona. After the Yom Kippur War Israel wasted two decades - the 1980s, despite the peace with Egypt and the Iran-Iraq War, since it threw itself into Lebanon; and the 1990s, despite the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Saddam Hussein and Iraq, since it did not have the courage to pay the price for peace with Syria.

The Lausanne deal, if it is completed and implemented, will provide Israel with an additional opportunity to focus its multi-year plans for the IDF on nearer and more essential priorities, without the craziness of a war with Iran. A reappraisal of the list of military purchases is also necessary. F-35 planes, for example, should be received as late as possible, once they have outgrown their childhood growing pains, and not in any rush. The best alternative would be a peace initiative, a diplomatic act of prevention instead of a military one. Given the present composition of the Israeli leadership that would be a huge surprise, maybe even for the politicians themselves.

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