Meir Amit (1921-2009), who at various times headed the Israel Defense Forces’ Central Command, Military Intelligence and the Mossad, was particularly proud of his work in the mid-’50s under Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan. He was basically the chief of army headquarters, playing a particularly key role during the 1956 Sinai Campaign when Dayan was in the field.
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The first wave of reactions to the Sinai Campaign was dominated by admiration for the IDF’s capabilities and the offensive’s boldness. Later, when the excitement died down and the planning secrets were revealed, some misgivings arose; the planners’ main objectives, above all the overthrow of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his regime, were not achieved. Amit usually responded by noting that there were 10 years of relative quiet between the withdrawal from Sinai and Gaza in early 1957 and the Six-Day War.
Such a judgment well after the fact characterizes Israel’s perception of military campaigns. Over the years, the objective is forgotten and only the results are remembered. A third issue, the cost, is suppressed.
That’s how in 2016 we see that the 2006 Second Lebanon War is getting better grades, and people are judging 2014’s Operation Protective Edge by Israel’s position vis-a-vis Gaza two years later, not on the war’s 50th and last day.
That’s the propaganda line expected from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who describes himself with a chuckle as the “sweaty survivor.” Indeed, he’s the last one on the cliff without his partners Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz and Yehuda Weinstein, the attorney general who blocked a criminal investigation into Netanyahu regarding the leak of a secret presentation about a potential occupation of Gaza.
In Washington the leaker’s senior position wouldn’t have saved him, as is evident by the guilty plea entered by James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, for lying to FBI investigators about revealing secrets to reporters.
Both the military and political leaders of military campaigns like to be judged in the future and not immediately – even though they may dismiss subordinates without waiting. Inquiry commissions are only appointed after failures, when the presumed task is merely to divvy up the responsibility among the leaders.
Prime ministers, defense ministers, chiefs of staff and other senior figures often question the logic of the investigation and its speed or – after five or 10 years – its haste. This occurs even though most of them achieved their high positions because these positions were vacated during the investigation into the previous operation and the public and political response to the conclusions.
Forty-three years after the Yom Kippur War, some people still deny the total Israeli defeat by making a simple comparison of the bargaining and field positions before and after. It’s as if the IDF’s seizing of enclaves in both Egypt and Syria in two and a half weeks constituted a military victory, even a partial one, given the territory Egypt captured east of the Suez Canal at the start of the war.
But by June 1974, Israel was forced to retreat on both fronts compared to the lines on October 5, and even that was a short-term result. Ultimately, with the evacuation of the entire Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was the victor in less than a decade. He personally didn’t survive to see the entire withdrawal, including the destruction of Yamit, whose construction was one of the things that pushed him to war. But in May 1982 the Yom Kippur War ended with an Egyptian victory.
The IDF likes to declare that war’s main principle is sticking to the mission until the objective is achieved, but in Israel only military missions are planned, never diplomatic objectives. In 1973, Sadat had a clear diplomatic objective, land for peace, which was translated into a limited military mission adapted to his power without overreaching.
Everything is transient and no victory is forever, but Sadat (and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) had a historical perspective. To the current administration in Jerusalem, history is yesterday’s news reports, and there’s no horizon beyond tomorrow’s tweet.