Opinion |

The Israeli Army Doesn’t Have to Win

In a conflict centered around societies, one can win only if one is willing to claim ownership of the rival society or, alternatively, to destroy or expel it. In either case, only a Pyrrhic victory is guaranteed

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FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers are seen from Meis al-Jabal village in south Lebanon, December 9, 2018
FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers are seen from Meis al-Jabal village in south Lebanon, December 9, 2018Credit: \ KARAMALLAH DAHER/ REUTERS

In his recent op-edIsrael Harel raises an important issue. But his arguments are based on a misunderstanding of the workings of government in a democratic state and of military strategy and thought. And they are flawed in their reading of our history while demonstrating his political bias.

Constitutionally, it’s not for the army to define victory but rather the political leadership, which sets goals, limitations, considerations and acceptable costs. The army must present different alternatives for attaining these goals and specify how each conforms to these various parameters.

Strategically, military operations ashould not be the focus of security activity. All military action must be tied to intelligence, economic, diplomatic and information-dissemination measures, aimed at achieving political goals. It’s for good reason that history’s greatest strategists emphasized that the supreme test of a leader is attaining a goal without resorting to war.

When this path is taken, force should be minimized. “Containment” is not only justifiable, it’s desirable if it serves the political goal.

Harel is doubly wrong in addressing history. First, containment does not characterize Israel’s past actions. More severely, his claim that all we’ve experienced in recent years are failures is misleading and tendentious. The Israel Defense Forces (and the other security branches) has demonstrated continual success in its interwar operations in Judea and Samaria, Gaza, Lebanon and even against Syria and Iran.

Iran is far from nuclear capability; its Syrian entrenchment has been blocked. Hezbollah has failed to obtain critical arms and avoids confrontation with Israel. Hamas has pulled back from offensive actions.

This, in addition to creating a general hiatus in military friction, in the absence of a diplomatic solution, that allows the settlement enterprise to proceed without leading to violent conflict or international intervention. These are huge achievements, the key to which is the judicious use of force, not a blind striving for victory in one stroke.

All this does not ignore the ground forces’ challenge to remain relevant. The new chief of staff would do well to address this, while calibrating expectations from the IDF should a confrontation erupt. It’s imperative to ensure that such insights are accepted by the political leadership and translated into the army’s preparation for combat.

It’s important that civilians feel secure in peacetime and join in willingly when needed. But the key to all this is not the lifting of all restraints on ground forces, so that they attack and conquer. The IDF’s test is to achieve success, not victory (as defined by Harel). That is, to avoid nonessential wars; shorten and reduce the cost of any war that does erupt; and suppress our enemies’ desire to engage us.

The idea that a military victory can solve the conflict is a mirage. Peace with Egypt resulted not from the size if our victory in the Six-Day War, but from its tie to the mixed results of the Yom Kippur War.

The key to increasing the ground forces’ relevance is not only to improve its readiness but also to recognize that we’re in an era of societal wars. Full-bore “classic” wars have become rare. They have been replaced by entanglements, in which armies face mainly societies, not an opposing army, where the enemy weaponizes its civilian population as the arena and the objects. The goal of such strategies is not “victory,” but rather to manipulate the consciousness of all the societies involved, including the international community. In these situations, our pursuit of a classic military victory can only enhance our rival’s achievements.

In a conflict centered around civil societies, one can win only if one is willing to claim ownership over the rival society or, alternatively, to destroy or expel it. In either case, only a Pyrrhic victory is guaranteed. It will create deep internal friction within the victorious society, with the enemy society becoming more extreme and the world more hostile, with an alienation of the Jewish world and a deepening of hatred in the Muslim world.

This lesson was learned by the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam and Iraq and the Russians in Afghanistan. For good reason the current Russian doctrine-strategy calls explicitly for striving for the “minimum acceptable.” That this is also the attitude Israeli and U.S. commanders urge their political leaders to embrace: the imperative to overcome the political temptation to embrace slogans that lead to failure.

The IDF, together with Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, and with the support of prime ministers and defense ministers, have learned from past mistakes to aim for success by a judicious use of the tools at our disposal. The air force has excelled of late, but the ground forces have also done their part to deny our rivals success, causing them to despair of a wider conflict while enhancing the sense of security of Israeli civilians.

Ariel Levite is a research fellow at the Carnegie Foundation.

Jonathan Shimshoni is a Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

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