Israel Won't Succeed in Confronting Mideast Threats Without Revolutionizing the IDF

Real life has intervened several times over the last two decades to prevent the implementation of the fundamental changes required by the Israel Defense Forces. Now it is Benny Gantz’s turn to be a revolutionary.

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In 2003, when the second intifada was at its height, journalist and now Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah published a book entitled “The Platter and the Money” ‏(a paraphrase, in Hebrew, of the title of a poem by Natan Alterman, which compares soldiers to a silver platter on which the State of Israel was served up to its citizens‏). The subtitle of the book, which is actually a 135-page manifesto, is somewhat provocative: “Why a revolution is required in the Israel Defense Forces.” At that moment in history, the army did not have much time to listen: Together with the Shin Bet security service, the IDF's General Staff was too busy trying to stop the terrorist onslaught of suicide bombers from the territories. Nobody really had time then to think about internal revolutions.

A year later, when the Palestinian intifada began to slow down and the threat of an eastern military front taking shape against Israel began to fade, in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, then Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon initiated a series of changes.

Although Ya’alon, today defense minister, and his successor, Dan Halutz, cautiously avoided the word “revolution,” they were prepared to probe in-depth the manner in which the IDF builds up its military strength.

The next two years, between 2004 and 2006, were characterized by a number of decisions − some of them initiatives of the General Staff, and some imposed by the political leadership − including: a reduction in the size of reserve units, especially in the Armored Corps; the reallocation of funds in the Defense Ministry’s budget for the acquisition of weapons for the IDF’s technologically oriented divisions, such as the air force and the Intelligence Corps; the implementation of the law governing military reserve duty that downsizes the number of days required annually and limits the length of the period for which reservists can be called up for active duty; and the adoption of a model for a differential mode of mandatory military service, by which only soldiers in vital roles would serve a full three years of duty, for which they also receive suitable financial compensation.

As is so often the case, life interfered and interrupted the full implementation of the large-scale plans. ‏(The plan to change the mode of mandatory service went completely unrealized.‏) The first obstacle took the form of the abrupt shortening of Ya’alon’s term as chief of staff in a dirty deal masterminded by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who were afraid that Ya’alon would oppose the 2005 plan to evacuate the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. The entry of Halutz as his successor, which was marked by hostility between him and Ya’alon, did bring about additional changes, though these could not necessarily be seen as a continuation of the moves started by Ya’alon; in fact, on several occasions, decisions were reversed not long after they had been made.

The IDF adopted an innovative modus operandi, but it was not one that was suited to the challenges it faced. Furthermore, a number of divisions in the IDF changed their organizational affiliation several times − moving from the technological and logistics directorate to the IDF Ground Forces Command, and back. Ostensibly, the Ground Forces Command underwent a process of organizational consolidation, but that had no effect on its status. And its training activities, especially those of reservists, continued to be characterized by an immense degree of negligence.

Then war broke out. The Second Lebanon War, in 2006, cut short Halutz’s term of duty: He was forced to resign after only a year and a half as chief of staff. The primary reason for the IDF’s underperformance in that war stemmed from the poor quality of the decisions that were made while the fighting was going on, whether by the General Staff or by the country’s political leadership. Looking back at that period today, it could be said that, despite the inadequate preparations of the ground forces, had the government and the General Staff known what they really wanted to achieve and had they been consistent in the implementation of their plans, the wide gap between the IDF’s capabilities and those of Hezbollah would have apparently produced a decisive victory for Israel.

Gabi Ashkenazi, who returned to the army in order to replace Halutz ‏(he had retired a year earlier‏), was charged with the task of rebuilding the IDF. His friend and adviser, former Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, likened the process to going square one. The IDF resumed its previous format of training activities and the preparation of soldiers and officers reflected a return to basics, constituting a refresher course in chapters in combat theory that had been forgotten. The process was inevitable, in light of what had been discovered in Lebanon. However, that war also had other consequences: Out of a desire to speak plainly, the army began to develop an anti-intellectual attitude that caused military personnel to look askance at any attempt to think unconventionally.

As could be expected, the pendulum swung in a direction that was totally opposite to the one taken by the IDF in the years immediately preceding the war. The bottom line: In the two decades between the appointment of Ehud Barak as chief of staff ‏(1991‏) and the entry of Benny Gantz into that role, as Ashkenazi’s successor, in 2011, there have been few innovations in the army. Barak, who began his tour of duty with talk about a “compact, smart army,” did not manage to implement his vision and was stopped in his tracks when he tried to shut down the Army Radio station. The five men who filled the position of chief of staff in the interim have largely maintained the same structures, for various reasons.

Now, Gantz must deal with a new threat − one that might also be an opportunity. The danger, which stems from the merging of a number of trends, is simply this: For the first time in a decade, the defense budget faces a significant threat to its very scale. At the same time, the Middle East is undergoing dramatic changes. The threat of a conventional military confrontation has lessened. The huge arsenal of missiles and chemical weapons that has been steadily built up in Syria is now being directed at domestic targets there − at the resistance to Bashar Assad’s regime − not at Israel.

At the same time, however, the number of possible scenarios for confrontations of a different kind, and on different fronts, has increased: a popular uprising in the West Bank; terrorist attacks by groups associated with Al-Qaida from the Syrian or Egyptian borders; a more extensive clash with Hezbollah or a well-planned provocative operation along the lines of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza that challenged Israel three years ago; and, of course, the possibility of Israel’s attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.

The merging of constraints and scenarios of escalation obligate the IDF to make significant changes. In a speech he delivered at the Herzliya Conference several weeks ago, Gantz said it was his mission “to move the IDF forward from where it is today to where it should be, but without neglecting the need to ensure that the IDF is prepared to meet familiar threats. The idea is to move the IDF ahead in a rational, responsible manner that will enable the army to be fully prepared to fulfill its role. The IDF must continue, at the same time, to initiate internal changes in the face of future challenges, because time is of the essence.”

Instability, the chief of staff added, “is the permanent variable in this region. Every week I find myself dealing with an operational event that could have easily deteriorated into a major confrontation.”

Mandatory change in direction

In the first few months of 2013, Gantz held what was described as a seminar: a series of individualized meetings with the senior officers on the General Staff, for the purpose of defining the changes that must be made in the army’s structure. It is clear to Gantz, as he said in a recent conversation with this writer, that a major change in direction is essential.

Gantz is today prepared to review the idea that the government abandoned, because of pressure from the top brass, mainly, the shortening of the duration of inducted military service for those who do not serve in critical roles. “Everything around us has changed,” said Gantz in that interview. “Reform is needed in the IDF and it must be carried out very soon. I believe in the responsible introduction of change. We must study the possibility of making changes in the scale of our ground forces, including our reserve units. We must consider the possibility of shortening the duration of military service and the setting up of differential tracks of service, whereby soldiers will be suitably compensated during their military service and in relation to the degree of difficulty in their service, with preference being given to combat soldiers. The time has come for decisive action. The approach we have become accustomed to is no longer suitable for the new constellation in the reality of this region.”

In his previous roles, Gantz was not known to be a great innovator. However, the current chief of staff is undoubtedly an intelligent individual who has introduced a culture that encourages discussion and even disagreement − a strange phenomenon in the military landscape of the past decade in Israel. Gantz will have to muster all his authority in order to bring about the changes he is talking about.

He must especially beware of the temptation to focus on the General Staff’s “comfort zone” − the air force, the Armored and Artillery Corps, and the Intelligence Corps. Those are the units that enjoy technological advantages and preferential treatment as far as budgets are concerned. After Operation Pillar of Defense, in the Gaza Strip last fall, when the IDF avoided the deployment of ground forces, and in light of the powerful personalities of the relevant major generals ‏(IAF commander Amir Eshel and Aviv Kochavi, director of Military Intelligence‏), this is a trap that the army could easily fall into. The belief that all one needs are ‏(a‏) reliable military intelligence that filters down to the level of the units in the field; and ‏(b‏) precision aerial attacks to meet any challenge, could emerge as a dangerous and totally baseless concept.

Regarding all these issues, after coming to an agreement on what changes are needed, Gantz and new defense minister Ya’alon must make their decisions and implement them quickly. Two words, as noted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the celebrated military commander who served in the Pacific region during World War II, are sufficient to explain most military blunders: “Too late.”  

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.Credit: Moti Milrod

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