Analysis

Politicians Conspicuously Absent in Crafting Israeli Army's Multiyear Plan

Knesset subcommittee paints picture of dysfunctional security cabinet

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot.
Ilan Assayag

Despite our apathetic politicians and a weak National Security Council, it is encouraging to see that sometimes the Knesset does what it should. A report released on Monday by a Knesset subcommittee regarding the Israel Defense Forces’ multiyear plan is a step in the right direction.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot pushed for the development and approval of the multiyear plan for the army following a six-year period in which the Israel Defense Forces operated without a multiyear blueprint. And for the first time, a public document has been developed defining IDF strategy.

The Subcommittee on Security Perception and the Building of Forces which put out the report, and which is headed by Ofer Shelah of the Yesh Atid party, demonstrates the first serious attempt to exert civilian oversight over the army’s functioning in these matters.

The subcommittee has an overall positive assessment of the work of the chief of staff, although it does contain some criticism. But its criticism of the government and the National Security Council is devastating. It was this critique that had two members of the subcommittee from the governing coalition, Yoav Kish (Likud) and Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi), refuse to sign off on the public version of the report.

Kish claims that Shelah, a former journalist who specialized in military issues, had sharpened the tone of the public report compared to the classified version that was completed in May that the entire subcommittee members approved. Shelah denies this, however, and others who have examined both versions back him up. Interestingly, Avi Dichter (Likud), who is the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, did not withhold his own signature.

The report will now serve as ammunition in the political battle against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That was to be expected and perhaps it’s unavoidable. But what is more important is that the army is responding seriously to the report’s criticism. The subcommittee members conducted some 30 meetings with senior IDF officials before producing their report and in recent months, wide-ranging work has already begun in the army regarding several of the subcommittee’s comments.

The subcommittee described a situation in which politicians were virtually absent in formulating the IDF’s multiyear plan. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is portrayed in the report as having only a marginal influence. Meanwhile the prime minister, the security cabinet and the cabinet as a whole had no role at all. According to Shelah, even if the National Security Council had not existed, it would not have mattered when it comes to the multiyear plan. The security cabinet did discuss the plan and gave its initial approval in March 2016, but that was three months after the IDF had already begun implementing it.

These claims have implications that extend far beyond political disagreement.

If the IDF rebuilds its power without the involvement from those at the political level, it will be very difficult to coordinate expectations with the security cabinet at the time of a future possible conflict. In addition, it appears that most of the security cabinet’s members do not even have an in-depth knowledge of the IDF’s relevant operational capabilities. (As usual, the only one of them who bothered to immediately read the classified version of the report was Yoav Galant, the construction and housing minister, although it’s possible that other security cabinet members also did so later on.)

Last year, amid harsh criticism of how the political echelon functioned during the 2014 war against Gaza and its allies in another report, Netanyahu appointed a committee that recommended changes in the security cabinet’s work procedures.

The critique of how the multiyear plan was created, as with the critique of the politician’s handling of the war in Gaza, shows that the dysfunctions of the security cabinet are ongoing.

In the IDF strategy document, Eisenkot said it is essential that the army be able to carry out rapid and lethal maneuvers on the ground during wartime. But do the members of the security cabinet have a handle on these issues? Do they know what the army is capable of doing and what it is not? Are they making sure that operational plans being developed in the case of a deterioration of the situation in Gaza or Lebanon are in keeping with the army’s capabilities? Without such coordination, it’s reasonable to think Israel will go on to repeat the failures of the past – from the Second Lebanon War in 2006 to Israel’s war in Gaza in 2014 against Hamas and its allies.

These issues are especially crucial against the backdrop of dramatic changes in the strategic situation along Israel’s northern border, in particular the success of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war in his country and the reinforced presence there of Iranian and Russian forces. At the moment, according to the Knesset subcommittee, the plans are all built from the bottom up, by the army. But strategic changes require a lot more coordination and understanding with the cabinet, and particularly the inner security cabinet.

According to the subcommittee report, Chief of Staff Eisenkot developed a plan behind which there is a clear vision. Unlike several of his predecessors, Eisenkot views the IDF as an organization that must undergo a process of real change. And that’s what he worked to do after the 2014 Gaza war, contrary to the rosy picture of reality that the army tried to ply to the public after the war itself.

The subcommittee also examined whether the multiyear plan was in keeping with Eisenkot’s views.

There is a logic in the IDF chief of staff’s decision not to continue to build the IDF “widthwise” for any possible scenario, but instead to focus on more relevant wartime scenarios. But when the army speaks about lethal and rapid maneuvering, is it amassing a comparable critical mass of capabilities that can achieve the required results during wartime?

Here the subcommittee has the impression that, despite the appropriate plans Eisenkot has been making and his rightful emphasis on preparing for war, the process of equipping and the building of forces is being carried out too slowly. Rapid and lethal maneuvering requires, among other things, outfitting a sufficient number of tanks and armored personnel carrier with active defense systems such as the Windbreaker system to allow a sufficiently strong and large IDF force to safely navigate Hezbollah’s or Hamas’ defenses. In turn, an effective mix of both regular forces and reserve units is required so that they can maneuver within a few days after the outbreak of a war.

According to the Knesset subcommittee, things still need to be sped up to make that happen. The public report notes gaps, for example, when it comes to spare parts and appropriate logistics on the ground. There are also other outstanding issues to address, the report said, from the vaguely termed, “ability to carry out primary steps,” as well as the need for more precision weaponry in the air force, additional active defense systems for tanks and armored personnel carriers, and stronger training exercises.

Eisenkot, the report notes, has a defined vision and is working to carry it out. At the same time, the chief of staff is working to establish an IDF cyber-branch. Both efforts are ongoing, so the subcommittee noted it was too early to yet make a call on whether those efforts are working.