All the headlines about Israel’s latest general election and Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption indictments are giving us the feeling that there has been a lull on the security front. Of course, a single incident in the north or south could ignite violence producing graver results than in the brief rounds of fighting of recent years. But for now we have time to explore two great new books on security matters.
After years of languishing, the academic study of Israel’s security doctrine has been reinvigorated. The previous chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eisenkot, has published guidelines for Israel’s security doctrine. Now Charles (Chuck) Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, has published a Hebrew version of his 2018 book “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change.”
Freilich, who has been lecturing in recent years at Tel Aviv University and Harvard, has also held senior research positions in the defense establishment. His book discusses Israeli defense doctrine from David Ben-Gurion’s basic principles – deterrence, early warning and military superiority – to the need to adapt to current realities.
Plus Freilich’s tone is different from the arrogant but sometimes panicked statements by Israeli leaders. After seven decades, Freilich calls Israel’s security situation “a dizzying success. We aren’t under any existential threats; there’s no immediate nuclear threat,” he told Haaretz.
“The friction with the Arab states has decreased considerably. With some of them, the conflict has basically ended and been replaced by a commonality of interests. Paradoxically, at the moment the main threat from the Arab countries is their weakness, which could lead to collapse and instability that would have implications for our security.
“What remains is Iran and two and a half non-state organizations. We’ve achieved good deterrence against Hezbollah and Hamas. The last war in Lebanon broke out and ended in 2006, and in Gaza, Hamas seeks a long-term arrangement. Some of what we need is composure – it took the Arab states decades until they realized they had to drop their aspiration to destroy us.
“Our main need is what I call strategic patience. We’re continuing to defend our existence, but the threats are long-term ... there isn’t an immediate military quick fix. I preach patience, not passivity. I’m not a pacifist: Military strength is and will remain essential for our security. Moves like the war between the wars have to continue,” he says; referring largely to efforts against Hezbollah and Iran’s attempt to gain a military foothold in Syria.
Is Freilich’s security doctrine detached from the leftist-Zionist views he espouses in his Haaretz opinion pieces?
“There’s always a worldview, but in my writing I’ve made every effort to disassociate myself from politics, except for one recommendation – to aim for a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians,” he says. “As a Zionist I understand the right’s attitude toward Judea and Samaria” – the West Bank – “but it’s impossible to ignore the demographic data. When we reach 60 percent Jews and 40 percent Arabs between the sea and the Jordan River, it’s not going to be a Jewish and democratic state.”
He remains very skeptical about the chances of reaching a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. “Israel has put nearly everything possible on the table and the Palestinians have rejected it again and again,” he says.
“I’m not sure they’ll have a leader in the future who will be able to sign an agreement. But we have to start creating a reality in preparing for a separation, because in the meantime we’re taking giant strides toward a binational state, and that would be the burial of the Zionist vision.”
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In his book, Freilich stresses the need to strengthen Israel’s defensive capabilities. “Our enemies have recognized their weakness vis-a-vis the IDF on the battlefield – and also our vulnerability on the home front – and have gone in for a long-term conflict based on abundance, on huge stockpiles of rockets and missiles. Israel can’t be vulnerable to extortion by missiles,” he told Haaretz.
“The concerns about the price differential between the expensive interceptor missiles and cheap rockets isn’t relevant. The interceptor missiles prevent deaths, spare the economy huge damage and save us from getting embroiled in unnecessary wars that could damage our international standing as well because of the massive killing of civilians on the other side.” Freilich says Israel should invest in offense as well, and “I don’t think we have to protect ourselves to the point of suffocation,” but the balance today isn’t right.
He says missile defense must be upgraded to cover the entire country, even if this blanket will never be long and wide enough. “It isn’t going to cover the last village. But we need a sufficient number of batteries and interceptor missiles in a way that cancels out the need during a war to choose between protecting army bases, infrastructure installations and population centers,” he says.
“We must aim for our defensive response to Hezbollah in the north to approach what we’ve achieved against Hamas in Gaza. I estimate that this involves an additional cost of $7 billion to $10 billion. Of that, the Americans have already taken on $5 billion, earmarked in the military-aid package agreement” – over a decade beginning this year. "It isn’t impossible to close the gap," says Freilich.
At age 82, Uzi Rubin, now has the Dr. title, as Freilich has. Rubin, a veteran aeronautical engineer and an expert on missile-interception systems, has won the Israel Defense Prize many times. In recent years he has studied the political and military decision-making processes for developing the Arrow antiballistic-missile system (which he supervised), David’s Sling (also known as Magic Wand) against long-range missiles, and the Iron Dome system, which protects against short-range rockets, artillery and mortar shells.
His doctoral thesis came out this month as a Hebrew-language book, “From Star Wars to Iron Dome: The Controversy over Israel’s Missile Defense.” The work is a first-of-its-kind description of the way Israel learned to deal with what gradually became its most disturbing security threat. Alongside his broad engineering and technological knowledge, Rubin knows about the behind-the-scenes battles over the missile-interception programs.
Rubin is a member of two think tanks, one of them relatively new, the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and the other veteran, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. One question he examines in his book is why the missile-interception projects succeeded while an earlier large project – the Lavi fighter plane – was canceled. “With its death, the Lavi bequeathed us the Arrow,” Rubin says, with a bit of irony.
“The IDF was opposed to the Lavi – and subsequently to all the interception projects I took part in. The military, as a strong hierarchical organization, had tools for stopping the Arrow. For years the generals, especially in the air force, argued that the missiles didn’t really constitute a threat, so they didn’t require special solutions, apart from an attack response. But in parallel, an alternative network of scientists and defense industry people developed what provided the alternative solution. The defense system against missiles began as a subversive project that encountered opposition from the IDF along much of the way.”
The military’s position was defeated in the end, for two main reasons. First, there was the Americans’ willingness to help fund the development of the systems.
The second aspect was the geopolitical reality. Iraq’s firing of Scuds at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War hastened the Arrow’s development. Hezbollah’s firing of thousands of rockets in the Second Lebanon War led to the decision to develop Iron Dome. Even after the war, the IDF was opposed to investing in missile-interception projects and demanded that all resources go to the acquisition of ordnance and stocks, which itself was urgent.
Rubin gives generous credit to two defense ministers, Amir Peretz (whose home address of Sderot sharpened his awareness of the urgent need for Iron Dome) and his successor, Ehud Barak. The two overcame the army’s reservations and saw the overall picture clearly. Today, some of the arguments proffered by the officers sound ridiculous, if not infuriating.
“When Peretz asked about defense against short-range rocket fire, they told him that so far only seven people had been killed and this didn’t justify the investment,” Rubin says. “One of the generals suggested to him: Invest in roads instead – that way you’ll save lives. But Peretz realized that terror is a strategic threat, not a tactical threat, because of its effect on the population.”
Did the army’s opposition stem from a structural tendency toward conservatism? In his book Rubin writes: “The defense establishment displayed a flawed ability to adapt, to put it mildly.” Still, he says, “One of the basic demands from the army is that it be ready for war at any time. This requirement encourages a conservative approach to force-building. Armies everywhere prefer the use of existing and familiar weapons systems over reliance on new weapons systems whose performance hasn’t been tested on the battlefield.”
Over the past two decades a debate raged on the desirable solution for combating the missiles. Iron Dome especially was lambasted by some retired defense officials. Rubin believes that the argument ended with a resounding victory for the supporters of the missile-interception systems that Israel chose. Iron Dome has enjoyed very impressive success rates in battle – nearly 90 percent in the frequent rounds of rocket fire from Gaza. The arguments heard in the early years, that Israel fudged the data, turned out wrong.
During the past two years the Pentagon has been reexamining the use of lasers against missiles and rockets, an idea that was once rejected as ineffective. Also, in the discussions on the IDF’s multiyear plan, which for now is suspended as Israel awaits another general election, the possibility of revisiting lasers has come up, in a bid for a less-expensive missile-interception system in the future.
But Rubin remains skeptical. In his view, Israel should aim for lowering the cost of producing the Iron Dome interceptor missiles; currently, for one missile, the price tag is estimated at around $60,000. Lowering that to $10,000, which Rubin believes is possible, could make it easier for Israel to make enough missiles to cope with the huge stockpiles of Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran.
The main dispute has already been resolved, and it’s Freilich and Rubin’s position: Defense of the home front, based on missile interception, is today accepted as a key element in Israel’s security doctrine, alongside Ben-Gurion’s elements. The challenge from the enemy will be a greater number of incoming missiles, which will try to flood Israel and thus foil the interception systems, and more accurate hits. Rubin expects the arms race to continue – and entail considerable investments on both sides.