Analysis

45 Years After Yom Kippur War, Debate on Israeli Army's War-readiness Is Swept Under Rug

Critique of Israeli army’s readiness for war dogs IDF chief's exit ■ Hamas stokes fighting spirit in Gaza, the Tamimi family doing the same in West Bank

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot touring the Gaza Strip border, July 2018
Israeli Army Spokesperson's Unit

If we were to use terms that Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, a Yom Kippur War hero, remembers from his combat service days, we could say it was a week in which the Israel Defense Forces moved from a defensive posture to counterattack. The series of papers that IDF Ombudsman Brik has delivered recently to the defense minister, the chief of general staff and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee regarding the IDF’s war readiness has until now elicited only limited media interest. It seems that the public is having a hard time getting a handle on a dispute in which Brik is all gloom and doom while Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot insists everything is fine.

But within the General Staff, Brik’s pointed claims about the IDF’s suitability and readiness for war – or lack thereof – have become a hot topic, perhaps even hotter than the speculation about the next chief of general staff. Brik’s latest report, a 250-page document in which he calls for the appointment of an external investigation committee headed by a judge to examine the readiness of the ground forces, has rung everyone’s warning bells.

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On Sunday, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee on preparedness and security held a meeting. Chairman Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) had become accustomed to the army sending middle-ranking officers to answer legislators’ questions. This time, though, the IDF comptroller and the defense establishment comptroller were joined by a battery of senior officers, headed by Ground Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak. Barak briefed the MKs for almost two hours on the situation of the force under his command.

According to Barak, the ground forces’ level of preparedness for war, based on detailed indicators, is very close to the target set by Eisenkot. He told the committee that the average weeks of training for infantry and armored corps battalions had gone up from just 16 weeks in 2012 to 26 weeks this year.

The MKs were also given additional documents, including a detailed report by the chief of staff and the generals on the state of the entire IDF’s preparedness for war. The Eisenkot document states that the army is highly prepared for war, its weapons inventory levels are the highest ever, the spare parts apparatus is at the ready and the combat array is fully manned, according to plan.

The army acknowledged the existence of a “manpower challenge” due to the shake-up caused by the changes to the standing army model, saying this requires “monitoring and handling.” Eisenkot’s report details the series of structural changes the Gideon multiyear plan has generated, the outdated armored and artillery divisions that were closed and the arrays that replaced them. The army confirmed that there are large gaps in logistical vehicles, primarily because the truck fleet is old.

IDF ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik in 2015
Alon Basson

Army brass fights back

The IDF is making a major effort to rebuff Brik’s claims. There is no doubt that personal animosity has developed between Brik and Eisenkot regarding the impression that the latter’s tenure will leave. The army’s angry reaction is somewhat surprising, because Eisenkot had always seemed more receptive to criticism than his predecessors, was careful not to develop any kind of personality cult and practically flees from headlines. But apparently no one likes to finish a term under attack, and Eisenkot’s term ends in just over three months.

This past year, the IDF under his leadership has dealt a severe blow to Iran’s interests in Syria and stood firm against the fence demonstrations in the Gaza Strip, without bowing to the pressure by politicians who tried to drag the army into war. Eisenkot also managed to extract himself from the remains of the Elor Azaria incident. The right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon even chose him as Man of the Year. (Azaria had been its choice last year.) Brik’s criticism casts a pall over all this.

In the struggle against Brik, it seems that some lines were crossed. His last document was classified as secret, but it didn’t go through the IDF’s information security department. For this reason, someone in the army tried to block the MKs from reading the copy that was sent to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The IDF is also claiming that Brik’s document was not distributed to the generals, but this doesn’t square with the insistence by several sources that copies of the report were collected from several army bureaus, on orders from above.

Moreover, the claim that Brik’s opinion has to be biased because his position requires him to “focus on the negative” does not hold water. The taxpayer pays the ombudsman’s salary and benefits to look for what is wrong with the IDF (although it’s true that examining army preparedness is not part of his regular work). Emitting good vibes to the public is the job of the very skilled IDF Spokesman’s Office; moreover, there are enough journalists who voluntarily help with this.

The behavior of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is somewhat surprising. Not only have they not yet responded publicly to Brik’s claims (though they haven’t backed Eisenkot’s position, either), the two have not allowed the security cabinet to read Brik’s reports. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who bore the trauma of the Second Lebanon War as a reserve company commander and experienced Operation Protective Edge as a member of the security cabinet, has asked four times to read the documents since Haaretz started reporting on them. So far, all Bennett has gotten is a runaround. Knowing him, he’s unlikely to stop pursuing this.

A month ago, Lieberman held a preliminary discussion on the ground forces’ readiness with Brik and top army brass, in light of Brik’s claims. Lieberman summed up that discussion with a positive impression of the IDF’s moves, but the discussion itself, like the most recent one Brik held with the General Staff, was marked by a tense argument between Brik and IDF Manpower Directorate Chief Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, whose department was the subject of some of Brik’s complaints.

When the chief of staff says he is dealing with numbers, not impressions, and presents a detailed document to the Knesset, that is a worthy and serious response. But perhaps the time has come for Eisenkot to address the public controversy himself and respond to some of the questions being raised by MKs. As of now Eisenkot is being represented in the media by self-appointed spokesmen. Since some of these people sold us nonsense about the army’s full rehabilitation after the Second Lebanon War, their claims cannot be considered particularly reliable.

Sources in the General Staff rightly note that during Eisenkot’s tenure there has been a great improvement in the quality of the training, the quality of the weaponry and the level of detail in the operational plans for various theaters. The state of the ground forces after Protective Edge in 2014, as was argued here, was close to catastrophic (the vehement denials by IDF brass notwithstanding). Since then those forces have come a long way. The question is where exactly we stand between that starting point and the goal set by Eisenkot, which he repeated in a meeting with soldiers on Rosh Hashana eve: Being able to conduct a deep and decisive ground maneuver in enemy territory.

As several MKs who have seen Brik’s documents have noted, even if only half or even 20 percent of his claims turn out to be correct, they require an in-depth discussion. Given this, the relative apathy of the media to Brik’s claims is pretty disappointing. As we mark the 45th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War (in which Brik himself was seriously wounded in the Sinai Peninsula, but continued to fight and was awarded a Medal of Valor), it doesn’t seem reasonable to sweep a debate about IDF readiness under the carpet.

Hamas keeping Gazan front hot

Protester near the Gaza Strip Border, September 14, 2018
AFP

Now that the wave of incendiary kites and balloons has died down, public interest in what’s going on in the Gaza Strip has waned. The weekly border demonstrations, the last of which saw three Palestinians killed, are being almost shrugged off.

But Gaza is showing signs that it intends to demand our attention again. Alongside the five focal points of the weekly demonstrations, a new site has emerged in recent weeks, in the northern corner of the Gaza Strip by the seashore. At the same time, Hamas has organized a new force of young people whose job is to engage in nightly harassment of the IDF forces along the border, by sabotaging the fence and throwing firebombs.

The apparent idea is to wear down the Israeli forces at a relatively low price, and to keep the front active, albeit on a low burner, for as long as there’s no broader solution. The partial cease-fire in the Gaza Strip has held for more than a month, but there is no real progress in talks. A rare consensus has emerged among Israel, Egypt and Hamas that blames Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for foiling the negotiations.

“Because of 40,000 Hamas members, you will continue to abuse two million people in the Gaza Strip?” an Israeli interlocutor asked Abbas recently. But Abbas will only agree to a reconciliation with Hamas in exchange for the group’s agreement to subordinate its weapons to the PA. Hamas, on the other hand, is proposing that the PA control Gaza above ground, while the group will continue to manage everything that happens underground, in the tunnels.

The Israeli defense establishment says that any comprehensive effort to rehabilitate the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip depends on the PA, because no one else can legally execute agreements that regulate the economic conduct between Israel and Gaza. While the decrease in violence has allowed Israel to revert to the situation that prevailed prior to March 30, by allowing the transfer of goods and expanding the fishing area, apart from that, Hamas has no real achievements. After 24 consecutive weekends of demonstrations that have left over 180 dead and close to 20,000 wounded (by Palestinian estimates), returning to the status quo ante will not satisfy the residents.

Hamas is seeking, for example, to increase the supply of electricity as winter approaches, since the local network can supply Gazans with only four to six hours of power a day. But this won’t happen without the PA’s consent, and as of now nothing is progressing. The international community has become apathetic to Gaza’s plight. This makes it unlikely that even the partial cease-fire will hold up.

Tamimi family at the barricades

The “Hamakor” program on Channel 10, which dealt this week with the Tamimi family from the village of Nabi Saleh, provided the Israeli viewer with a rather unusual glimpse of the daily craziness at the friction points in the territories. The public interest in the bad relations between the residents of the Palestinian villages in the area and the settlers from the Halamish (Neve Tzuf) settlement, west of Ramallah, is sometimes spurred by atrocities (the terrorist murder of three members of the Solomon family in July 2017) or by high-profile incidents (like the arrest of young Ahed Tamimi for slapping a soldier). But what happens there on ordinary days is also violent and infused with hate.

File photo: Demonstrators hold posters reading: "Release Ahed" during a protest demanding Israel to release Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, in Paris, Thursday Jan. 4, 2018.
Christophe Ena/AP

The Nabi Saleh-Halamish arena is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on steroids. The Tamimi family, which in the past took an active role in the violent struggle, is now sending its children to the forefront of a propaganda battle aimed mostly at the international arena. This is what has led to the increase in pilgrimages by foreign left-wing activists to solidarity meetings with Ahed’s father, Bassem Tamimi.

But anyone impressed by the considerable courage shown by the younger Tamimis as they confront soldiers and the police cannot ignore the family’s absolute negation of any kind of future coexistence with Israel, even after a hypothetical withdrawal from the territories. Their struggle is not nonviolent. When many Palestinians talk about pursuing “the path of peace,” they stretch this definition to include throwing stones and firebombs. Mahatma Gandhi is not exactly a source of inspiration for the family from Nabi Saleh.

All of this has been met with exceptional Israeli stupidity. Just like the excessive panic with which the government responds to the BDS movement, when it came to Ahed Tamimi, Israel behaved like a frightened state. The slap of the soldier immediately became an insult to national pride.

This is all connected to the efforts to expand the settlements and the outposts. Ten years ago, a dispute between a village and a settlement over a spring wouldn’t be a big deal. Now it has become an issue over which people are prepared to kill and be killed, and the cause of weekly confrontations. A similar reality prevails at many points of contact between the settlements and the villages.

The 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords has led to numerous eulogies that have declared the two-state vision dead and buried. Around 40 years ago Menachem Begin promised “a lot of Alon Morehs.” He promised and delivered. Those who want to continue the current situation must take into account many more Nabi Salehs and lots of Halamishes. It won’t be any better in another decade, only more tense and more violent.