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Israeli Army's Strategic Window of Opportunity Is Back

Identifying no immediate threats, Israeli army chief eyes long-term buildup

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi deliver joint statements in Tel Aviv, Israel November 12, 2019
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In slightly surprising fashion, the Israeli military declared this week the return of a strategic window of opportunity.

Five years ago, significant regional developments – the vilified nuclear deal with Iran and the destabilization of the Arab world – led to the assumption that a major war was not in the offing. This justified the army’s proposal to divert huge sums from preparations for a possible attack in Iran to upgrading certain operational capabilities.

Thus, a window of opportunity opened, allowing the implementation of a multi-year plan called “Gideon,” crafted under previous chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, with the support of the government. Now, his successor, Aviv Kochavi, is seeking to reproduce the exercise by allocating enormous sums to develop and advance an additional range of capabilities in a multiyear plan called “Tnufa” (momentum).

Current IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, left, with his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, October 27, 2015.

Just a few months ago, the military’s General Staff was dragged against its will into serving as a backup band for the fearmongering of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With the Iranians on the border with Syria, long-range missiles deployed in Yemen and the fear of a renewal of Iran’s armed nuclear program brewing, Netanyahu created the impression that a quick deterioration leading to a regional war was within the realm of possibility. The scenario naturally obliged Kahol Lavan to quickly join the coalition on Netanyahu’s terms and with him at the helm.

The message the chief of staff is now sending is more complex and perhaps more accurate. Iran is feeling intense economic pressure and is still not racing toward nukes. The danger of a conventional war with neighboring countries has receded because the Syrian army is only beginning to recover; and Jordan and Egypt have peace agreements with Israel – even revolutions in those countries wouldn’t lead immediately to a military confrontation.

The main danger is an unintentional deterioration in Gaza or on the northern border, which is liable to lead to war. But such a development has already been a possibility for a number of years.

These circumstances allow the military, in Kochavi’s opinion, to dedicate more time and money to a long-term building process. He leans toward taking risks that would give the army momentum in the race against its enemies.

On the other side, forces that the chief of staff calls “armies of terror” are positioning themselves: Decentralized organizations, which control arsenals of rockets and missiles that are larger than those of some nations in the region. These organizations operate defense apparatuses in crowded urban environments that are difficult to maneuver, and are also honing their offensive capabilities, mainly using commando forces. In addition to the rocket threat on the home front, traditional Israeli superiority will be challenged by countermoves: In the air (SAM missiles), in cyberwarfare and electronic warfare.

The heart of the multiyear plan, in Kochavi’s view, is readiness for a sudden war, as well as the need to adjust for the war of the future. This means focusing on exposing enemy military deployments (often located in crowded civilian areas), to process intelligence faster and to hit targets quicker and more effectively.

A substantial part of the plan relies on making these improvements trickle down from headquarters the the field. In order for this to be achieved, the military needs to federate all the different tools and all the units and ultimately connect them through a joint communication network.

A woman tank driver participating in the Israel Defense Forces' Armored Corps pilot program, June 28, 2018

Question marks

Kochavi is a big fan of disassembling and assembling. That was his way as head of military intelligence and head of northern command, and that is how he has approached all his senior roles. He is doing the same, with greater vigor, with the multiyear plan.

An indefatigable marketer, Kochavi has invested heavily in advancing his plan. It has the support of senior commanders, and presents extremely well. And still, it also raises doubts. In a five-hour meeting with the press this week, reserve units weren’t mentioned even once. And the decision to once again cut the number of tanks certainly will keep veteran armor people awake at night.

There are three other major questions. The finance minister talks about the need to cut 20 billion shekels ($5.84 billion) from the state budget to cover this year’s deficit and another 30 billion next year. This doesn’t sit well with Netanyahu’s promises to look after the army’s needs. The military may be able to get by on $3.8 billion dollars a year from American aid, along with a special addition of 2 billion shekels approved this year and other resources from funds diverted from other parts of the budget. However, these amounts put together are insufficient for the meaningful revolution the chief of staff is planning. Everything depends on obtaining more money, which will be delayed at least until the political picture clears up. 

The second question mark is about the reliance on advanced technologies, and the quality training it requires in soldiers and commanders. The army has a long-term problem, which is getting worse, in whipping up the motivation to serve and the desire to sign on for the professional army. Wiithout a sufficient number of soldiers with suitable talents, things won’t move at the pace the chief of staff wants.

The third question mark has dogged the military for two decades - and it is over the relevance (and use) of an operational army. Various plans keep promising to restore the ground forces to their greatness and to make ground exercises a high priority again. These things will probably happen on their own – if over 1,000 rockets are fired every day on the home front, the government simply will have no choice but to approve an extensive ground operation.

Israeli soldiers patrolling with the help of laser technology.

However, in all the recent operations (the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the last three series of battles in Gaza), the rocket threat was more modest and the governments hesitated. In the end, they avoided major moves, fearing heavy losses and public criticism. The army probably worked hard to sharpen its sword, but the politicians simply didn’t allow it to be unsheathed.

These are uncomfortable days for Kochavi. On the one hand, there’s a lack of fiscal clarity over the multiyear plan, the apple of his eye. On the other hand, there is the need to hit the breaks in the face of the possible military adventures the politicians would drag it into (it’s worth recalling the night of rockets on Ashdod before the last elections in September). And still, in the background, there is also a risk that politicians, and Netanyahu in particular, will try to use the military for his own campaign purposes.

Another concern is also developing. The army is caught in a web of scandals that is undermining public confidence. These include the flooding of jets on the Hazor Air Force Base (which was hidden from the public for three days) and the inflation of Haredi draft statistics. And with respect to a much less important matter, it was embarrassed by the celebrations involving the induction of singer Noa Kirel, revealing the existence of a so-called talent track, which gives famous draftees absurd benefits. This smaller scandal, too, bothered the chief of staff.

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