Why Israel Downplayed One of Its Biggest Military Exercises

There was a message for the Israeli public, and a message to Israel's enemies

Amos Harel
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Israel Defense Forces tank near the Gaza border, June 14, 2019.
Israel Defense Forces tank near the Gaza border, June 14, 2019. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Amos Harel

The military exercise in northern Israel this week was one of the largest of its kind in recent years. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi spent most of his time there during the past few days. All the top brass from the General Staff also visited the units that were training. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was there on Wednesday for a few hours. Nonetheless, apart from one short video distributed following Netanyahu’s visit, the media coverage of the exercise was slight and the details about it officially released by the Israel Defense Forces were minimal.

This was intentional. In recent years, the IDF would initiate extensive coverage of the exercises, with a double message – for domestic consumption and for outside consumption. The army wished to broadcast to the Israeli public that it had learned lessons from the Second Lebanon War and the rounds of conflict in the Gaza Strip, and the units had gone back to proper training. For the organizations in neighboring countries, the message was one of deterrence. This time, the intention was to ensure minimal leakage of information to the enemy. Therefore it was not revealed which units participated in the exercise, how many reservists had been called up and what the parameters of the exercise were.

What can be said is that there was a broad spectrum of forces participating, both from the standing army and the reserves, and it was integrated into the annual air force training exercise. The maneuvers practiced by the forces were drawn up in accordance with the major challenge the IDF will presumably face in the coming years: confrontation with what Kochavi calls “terror armies,” organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas that gradually acquire military capabilities, some of which are comparable to those of states in the region. A large amount of money was invested in the current exercise in an attempt to replicate combat scenarios insofar as possible, down to the smallest details.

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Netanyahu, according to his statement at the end of his visit, was encouraged by what he saw in the units – but that’s something all prime ministers and all defense ministers say whenever they observe a military exercise. There are two main questions at the conclusion of this exercise. The first is whether the capabilities that were demonstrated in a concentrated way, with of all of the army’s priorities at the fore, accurately reflect the level of all the divisions and brigades. The answer to this question is in the negative. There are many gaps between units – and at the moment it seems the chief of staff’s plans do not correspond with the resources the government and the Finance Ministry are prepared to allocate to them.

The second question is whether the government will feel sufficient confidence in itself to deploy the IDF ground forces in a broad, deep action inside enemy territory if a war breaks out. The answer to this question depends on the gravity of the war scenario. It is possible that in circumstances in which the Israeli home front is facing rocket barrages and destruction of an extent and ferocity it has never known in the past, the government will have no choice but to authorize the army to act, even if that entails the risk of heavy losses.