Analysis

Retired General’s Solution to Israeli Army’s Flaws: Fewer Tanks, More Training

Maj. Gen. Amiram Levin rubbishes talk that Israel’s enemies have become stronger over the years, but warns that the years spent in the occupied territories have adversely affected the army during times of war

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin at a conference in Tel Aviv, June 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin saw the latest update to the “Israel Defense Forces Strategy” document, by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, and was impressed. “This is a thorough and serious document, and it includes everything it should,” says Levin, who has remained in touch with the army brass (and also continues to occasionally informally advise Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman), even some 20 years after concluding his army service.

He has mainly good things to say about Eisenkot, his former subordinate who was commander of the Golani Brigade while Levin was head of the IDF’s Northern Command. “He’s an excellent chief of staff – a chief of staff with values,” Levin says. “Woe betide us if there wasn’t someone like that.”

But Levin is concerned by what he sees as a disparity between the IDF’s correct strategic analysis of the regional reality and the solutions the army is offering, particularly with regard to ground forces. That’s a distinction not far removed from the opinions expressed by the chief of staff himself.

For over two years, Eisenkot has been trying to make military declarations about the importance of divisional maneuvers more than just words. The army recently announced the return of regular infantry and armored brigades to a “17-17” training schedule (involving cycles of 17 weeks of training and 17 weeks of operational involvement), for the first time since the second intifada erupted in September 2000.

Levin believes the change is being implemented too slowly and that the IDF’s ground forces are having difficulty catching up with the breakthroughs achieved by the air force and intelligence services, and the close coordination between the two.

Levin entered politics last year with the Labor Party, linking up with its chairman, Avi Gabbay. Before that, though, he was commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit; a battalion and brigade commander in the Armored Corps; and commander of an armored division. In his most recent role, as head of Northern Command, he fought Hezbollah in the Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon. The guerrilla group, which bragged about ousting the IDF from Lebanon in 2000 (after Levin had retired), fought the Israeli army again in 2006; Levin was one of the heads who investigated the army’s performance during that year’s Second Lebanon War.

Israel’s enemies, he says, understood the key issue at the time: “They can’t defeat the IDF, so they direct their fire at Israeli society – with psychological warfare through the media, and then by firing rockets at civilian areas in wartime.”

He doesn’t buy into claims that the challenges facing the IDF have become increasingly harder in the intervening years. “The disparity in the force ratio today is a lot greater in the IDF’s favor than it was in the past,” he says. “The armies around us operate inside countries that no longer function. The threat to Israel is from terrorist organizations. Generally, they’re hooligans with rockets.”

The other big difference between Hezbollah-Hamas and Israel, as he sees it, relates to their goals. “Developed countries, and we’re one of them, have an interest in maintaining the equilibrium,” Levin says. “It’s comfortable for them. For the [terrorist] organizations, it’s the opposite. They want to shatter the status quo, and the way to achieve that from their viewpoint is by injecting civilians into the equation – our civilian front, which will be hit, and their civilians, who by causing their deaths will make it possible to accuse us. If in the next war we attack and hit Hezbollah for months and in the meantime our civilians are attacked all the time, it means we’ll have lost.”

Levin has for years identified the ramifications of serving in the occupied territories with how the IDF functions during wartime. “It has destructive consequences,” he declares. “There is where the idea was born that the main goal of my commander is to return safely from the mission and return the soldiers safely, without regard to fulfilling the mission.”

Amiram Levin, right, briefing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak in southern Lebanon, 1995.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

He recommends a series of different steps to what is currently planned to shore up the standing of the ground forces. Levin suggests further cuts in command positions, but actually believes the step needs to start with curbing the standing of the ground forces so they stop competing with the regional commands and begin focusing on training. Levin also believes the Depth Corps – which was established during the tenure of previous Chief of Staff Benny Gantz for operations deep in enemy territory – is superfluous (“We can make do with a limited command within the air force,” Levin opines).

In addition, he suggests that the army deploy four regular divisions instead of the current three, arguing that such a step would reduce the reliance on reserve forces in the early days following the outbreak of a war and enable the IDF to land a surprise blow on the enemy, if necessary, without disclosing its intentions in advance. (The early call-up of reserves is a step that’s relatively easy to spot.)

Characteristically, Levin is more prepared to take risks than most of his former subordinates. Despite the substantial cuts made in the number of IDF tanks, Levin believes this is not enough and recommends taking advantage of the window of opportunity presented by internal wars in the Arab world and getting rid of other relatively outdated platforms in the Armored Corps – even if it then takes time to produce enough modern tanks. Instead, he recommends relying on a mix of missiles (including long-range and anti-tank), alongside lighter and faster armored vehicles and strengthening the infantry’s maneuvering capabilities.

The war poet

Less than three months before his death this week, poet Haim Gouri met for the final time with a group he had particularly fond feelings for: the IDF General Staff. Chief of Staff Eisenkot decided to devote part of the IDF’s events marking Israel’s 70th anniversary to a discussion on the War of Independence. He launched the series on the 32nd anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, with a meeting with veterans who fought in the War of Independence. Gouri was the guest of honor at the inaugural meeting at the Yitzhak Rabin Center, Tel Aviv, and delivered a long and fascinating talk about his experiences in that war, the doubts over the IDF’s combat values, and the link between the two in Natan Alterman’s poetry.

Old age had clearly taken a toll on his health (he was 94 when he died), but his remarks were sharp and clear. Toward the end of the talk, though, something rather peculiar happened. Gouri, who was able to recite long stretches of poetry from memory, read an extract from Alterman’s poem, but even those listeners without a particularly developed taste for poetry could have recognized that the style was not Alterman’s but actually Gouri’s. It was only after several pages of dramatic, emotional recitation that Gouri cut himself short in mid-sentence and turned to his wife, Aliza, in amazement: “But Alikeh, Alterman didn’t write this, I did!”

Was he testing the audience’s alertness or did he get confused for a moment between the standard works he contributed to Hebrew culture and those contributed by Alterman, his elder? It’s hard to know, but his audience left with the deep impression that it had been meeting with a disappearing generation. It was also impossible to overlook the strong feelings of longing the poet felt for his comrades, many of whom were killed in the War of Independence and in his memory remained forever 20.

Haim Gouri, left, with wife Aliza and fellow poet Natan Zach in 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum