Just before he finished his term as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eisenkot went to war against the IDF ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, who had written a harsh report saying the military wasn’t prepared for the next war. In September 2018, in an unusual step, Eisenkot sent all the members of the security cabinet and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee a letter.
“As the person responsible for the military’s preparedness for war, I declare that the IDF is ready for every mission demanded of it, a military with intelligence and air superiority, a ground capability, and one with rich operational experience that meets the test daily in all arenas of war,” Eisenkot wrote.
He said similar things at his farewell ceremony at the beginning of this year, with the new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, at his side. In July at the Herzliya Conference, Eisenkot said that “the IDF has the most advanced capabilities in the world and unequivocal military superiority within a radius of 2,000 kilometers from Israel” – 1,240 miles.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the defense minister, also takes pride in Israel’s achievements in the battle against Iran’s military entrenchment in the Middle East. But the wind has shifted recently. In his speech at the swearing-in of the new Knesset early last month, Netanyahu sounded more worried than ever.
“This is not spin and not a whim .... Iran is arming, strengthening, its audacity is growing. This reality requires us to strengthen and arm.” The IDF needs “defensive and offensive means of a scope, power and quality that we haven’t had before,” he added. This will require “many billions” more in the defense budget. On Thursday, at the graduation ceremony for the Ground Forces’ officers training course, Netanyahu said “we are prepared for the threats.”
It seems that senior defense officials, who until recently emphasized the IDF’s preparedness and the enemy’s weakness, have adopted Netanyahu’s line. Last week Kochavi said the threats against Israel were getting worse.
“On the northern and southern fronts the situation is tense and fragile and could deteriorate into a conflict, even though our enemies aren’t interested in a war,” he said. Such a situation requires the IDF to launch a “process of accelerated preparedness.”
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Another senior defense official described an even gloomier picture when he warned in a closed forum that if Israel doesn’t immediately begin a process of strengthening itself, the IDF might lose its qualitative advantage. Hezbollah is getting stronger and Israel and Tehran are already in direct conflict, even if not on the battlefield, the official said. The existing budget won’t be adequate for the foreseeable threats from Iran, senior defense officials have warned recently.
The differences between the declarations make you wonder: Does Israel really face threats it has never known before? Have its achievements in averting war eroded, or was the pride in them exaggerated from the start? Is somebody maybe exaggerating the seriousness of the situation for his own purposes?
Netanyahu is now fighting for his political life after twice failing to form a new government, and in light of the draft corruption indictment. Netanyahu says the security tensions require a unity government led by him – as he stated a year ago at the height of a coalition crisis: “We find ourselves in one of the most complex security situations ever, and you don’t go to elections at such a time.”
The list of threats
For its part, the military wants the defense budget passed so Kochavi can implement his own multiyear plan. For now, this plan is being paid for by diverting funds within the IDF.
The threats the senior political and military leaders are warning about really do exist, and no defense officials with whom Haaretz spoke take them lightly – but they’re not new. The Iranian nuclear program, Hezbollah, the firing of precision missiles from Iraq or by Shi’ite militias in Yemen – all this kept Eisenkot busy from his very first day on the job in February 2015, and his predecessor, Benny Gantz, too.
These are exactly the threats that defense officials have been preparing for over the past five years. To handle these threats, Israel purchased F-35s, precision rockets, Merkava Mark 4 Barak tanks and some of the most advanced armored personnel carriers in the world. This is why the elite Commando Brigade was established and the intelligence forces has received enormous budgets and developed capabilities that foreign militaries are sending their people to Israel to see.
Since 2015, Israel has dealt with the Iran threat via “the war between the wars” – a general name for the prevention of the enemy’s entrenchment and aggression, which includes air force strikes in Syria and Lebanon.
Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, the former head of the Operations Directorate whom Eisenkot appointed “the project manager for the battle against the Iranian threat,” recently explained this policy in an article in the IDF journal Bein Haktavim, published by the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies. In the piece, written with Dana Preisler-Swery, the authors say the idea in the war between the wars “is to stop before the deterioration, but from a position of strength.”
As a result, “it is essential to create deterrence in which the other side understands that if a broad escalation develops, up to the point of war, Israel will be victorious.” In any case, the authors made clear that the IDF’s mechanisms for building up forces and allocating resources were planned first and foremost to prepare for war.
The intelligence assessment for 2019 presented to the political leaders considered the war between the wars a success; it said “the Iranians have suffered heavy blows as a result of Israel’s actions.” Among the IDF’s achievements for 2018 were the “significant reduction of the Iranian forces in Syria, the taking apart of Iranian bases, the damaging of Iran’s intelligence assets, the creation of restraints against Iran in the military and international arena, significant damage to Hezbollah’s precision-missile project and severe economic damage to [Iran’s] Quds Force and Hezbollah.” According to this assessment, the likelihood that Hezbollah will initiate a war is low, and it has only a few dozen precision missiles.
“In the current situation, we can achieve a military victory against the enemies in the surrounding area,” a defense official very familiar with the balance of military power told Haaretz. Changes have occurred in the region, including Washington’s relinquishing of its responsibility in the Middle East and the antiaircraft systems that limit the air force’s freedom of operation – but these have been taken into account and the IDF has prepared to deal with them, the official said.
In recent years, despite a few days of fighting along the border, “Israel wasn't close to war or even a wide-scale escalation,” he added. “The events can lead to a confrontation of a few days, but we haven’t seen an intention to go to war, not on their side and not on our side.”
Even under Gantz, “discussions started on the need to prevent the transfer of precision weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, Syria or anywhere else,” the official said. “We didn’t think then that we had to get excited about the Shi’ite militias, and today we don’t have to either. What’s important about these militias is who stands behind them and who feeds them.”
Alon and Preisler-Swery write: “It is possible to say that against most of the parties in the region today there is no risk of war, not even against the Iranian forces in Syria. They’re not able to fight against Israel in the current situation, so the concept of the risk of war must be limited to Hezbollah and the Palestinian issue, mostly against Hamas.”
Senior IDF officers also say that the war between the wars has distanced Israel from a conflict with Iran. “The Iranians understand our capabilities and the disparities between us today,” said a senior officer at the end of last year. This creates deterrence and they don’t want to come to a broad conflict with us.”
An intelligence official said at the time that Iran understands very well that Israel has seriously damaged its plans and aspirations. The senior officers said Hezbollah too will be wary about initiating a confrontation with Israel, knowing it would pay a heavy price.
Stricken by sanctions
These assessments result not only from Israel’s efforts, but also from Iran and Hezbollah’s financial woes because of the U.S. sanctions on Iran. At a closed defense forum about a year ago, experts said Iran’s presence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen had extracted a heavy economic price from Iran, leading to a deep economic crisis in that country that would make it difficult for Tehran to endure a conflict with Israel.
In May, an officer in the Northern Command said Hezbollah was in its worst economic state since it was founded because Iran couldn’t finance it as it had done in the past. Officers in the Northern Command said Hezbollah was having a hard time paying for training, salaries and maintenance.
Those who warn about a confrontation with Iran say Tehran has changed its policy and is now determined to respond militarily to every Israeli attack. But for a long time Iran has been responding to every operation that Israel has taken responsibility for. This is what happened when an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace, when, a number of times, rockets were fired from Syria at northern Israel, and in August when the Quds Force tried to carry out an attack using drones. Now the two sides might be trading blows more often, but this is a situation the military has dealt with before.
The Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf also caused concern in Israel, but intelligence experts believe Iran is in no rush to act against Israel on the seas. Defense officials say that even though Tehran has the capability of hitting Israeli ships, it apparently realizes that this would be a step up in the conflict and is wary.
Assuming that no real changes occur in the threats to Israel, what’s left is the question of preparedness. After the publication of Brik’s report, Eisenkot appointed two reserve generals, Avi Mizrahi and Doron Almog, to examine the ombudsman’s claims, in cooperation with the IDF comptroller. “In the broad sense, we found that the IDF, including all its units, is capable of protecting Israeli citizens and national security,” Mizrahi said after their examination. “We found the forces ready, trained and prepared with advanced equipment.”
The Knesset also established its own committee to examine Brik’s claims. The panel included a number of very experienced legislators with a security background. The committee pointed out a number of deficiencies in manpower and logistics, but regarding preparedness for war, the panel was impressed.
“Only a few months ago we went among the units and spoke with senior officers, and I didn’t feel any hysteria,” former Zionist Union MK Eyal Ben-Reuven, a former general, said at the time, adding that it’s definitely feasible to operate against Iran or Hezbollah. “And it’s simply a lie to say we have to prepare the IDF because we don’t have the capability or that there are critical shortages that would prevent victory.
“Between apathy, arrogance and hysteria there’s a middle ground, and that’s where we have to look for the truth and examine the situation. There’s an element of truth here, because there are shortages and there always will be, and it’s convenient for Netanyahu to portray this as if we’re just a moment from disaster requiring that he form a government.”
In recent days, the IDF held an exercise testing one of the army’s spearhead divisions that’s expected to have a major role in the next war. Afterward, senior commanders were unanimous that the division was in its best shape for years; it has all means necessary for victory on any front.
With the battle over the defense budget going on in the background, the Finance Ministry has its doubts about the security picture changing so significantly, and officials there remind people that until six months ago all the military’s situational assessments said existential threat against Israel had eased. The ministry notes that the cost of the war between wars – operations against the threats the political and military leaders are warning about – is only a very small part of the defense budget, certainly lower than the cost of a major military campaign.
“The army is doing exceptional work, but in the end it has its role,” a Finance Ministry official said. “We don’t need to get excited and go crazy with inflated budgets.”