Israel’s Wars: Is Anyone Capable of Setting Policy?

As far as I can remember, the last time Israel crafted national goals for a war was in 1956. Recent conflicts, including the Gaza wars, have simply been forums for massive force.

Tal Cohen

The latest state comptroller’s report justly received criticism for focusing on “trivialities” while “ignoring the fundamental failure: the government’s refusal to set policy,” as Amir Oren wrote in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition earlier this month. In other words, the government wasn’t capable of setting goals for the 2014 Gaza war − not for itself and not for the army.

If we add the statement by a minister who refused to be named, whom Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea quoted as saying “the amount of ammunition the Israel Defense Forces fired in Gaza was greater than everything we fired in the Yom Kippur War,” the gap between the means employed in the Gaza war and its achievements is unfathomably large.

Therefore, the government’s failure is even more glaring in that the only thing it saw fit to demand of the army was to advance a few kilometers and blow up a few tunnels. At one time company commanders made decisions like that. Consequently, the question of whether there were solutions other than the use of massive force – not just against combatants, but also against the helpless civilian population – never arose.

At this point, the average reader will rummage through his memory and ask himself: When exactly has any government since David Ben-Gurion’s bothered formulating war goals? He’ll skip over the 2008-09 Gaza war, which was meant to provide a simple tactical solution for rocket fire on southern communities, and over the 2006 Second Lebanon War, in which it’s doubtful anyone knew what he was doing, and stop at 1982.

Yes, that deceitful 1982 Lebanon war, which exacted a heavy human price for nothing, had war aims, but they were so delusional that nobody dared state them openly: to put the Christian militias in control of Lebanon and break the Palestinian national movement once and for all. Then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who ran that war behind the backs of the cabinet and the prime minister, apparently thought that afterward he’d be able to dump the Palestinian problem on Jordan’s doorstep and thereby perpetuate Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

But the key moment was the string of four wars with Egypt – the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1967-70 War of Attrition and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This collection stemmed from the most important strategic decision any Israeli prime minister has made since the 1948 War of Independence. Regardless of whether this decision was good or bad, it shaped Israel for the first 25 years of its existence.

Indeed, as far as I can remember, the last time Israel crafted national goals for a war was in the autumn of 1956. That’s when Ben-Gurion decided to join the Anglo-French alliance in its war on Egypt.

In their great stupidity, the French believed that the revolt in Algeria would die out if Egypt was defeated, while Israel decided that in exchange for the French alliance, it was worth declaring war on the Arab world, which saw Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as its hope. This was a deliberate strategic decision.

Would it have been possible to obtain the nuclear reactor in Dimona without sticking a knife in Egypt’s back? That’s a question it’s probably not possible to answer without opening up the archives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no Ben-Gurion. If he were of similar stature, he wouldn’t be wallowing in the mud of the 2014 Gaza war or be forced to read the state comptroller’s report or tolerate insults from Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

He knows that during U.S. President Barack Obama’s tenure, he had a rare opportunity to jettison the national disaster of the occupation and the settlements, and to make a genuine strategic decision about the country’s future without a war. But I doubt he’s even capable of thinking about such a step.