Opinion

Why Is the IDF So Aggressive?

More than anything the IDF is zealous about its prestige, its resources and its freedom of action, and that influences its judgment on how to best serve the country’s security

An Israel Air Force F-35 fighter plane, performing in an air show, December 27, 2018.
Jack Guez/AFP

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is spearheading the militant approach toward confronting Iran in Syria, according to Amos Harel (May 3). If so, this refutes one of the prevailing assumptions in Israel and around the world that the chief of staff is a moderating factor, who works to restrain the politicians. The IDF blocked the initiative to attack nuclear facilities in Iran and was indeed responsible for the restraint shown in the West Bank in 2015 when the so-called lone-wolf attacks began.

This image is now being shattered, as the army reacts aggressively on the Gaza-Israel border and attacks Iranian outposts in Syria. So is the army hawkish or dovish? The answer is that this question is irrelevant. More than the army is loyal to one ideological approach or another, it is loyal to its status as an organization.

That’s why the IDF restrains the politicians when they push it toward battles that cannot be won. That’s why it isn’t thrilled about pursuing adventures in the Gaza Strip and certainly not interested in dealing with a third intifada in the West Bank. In such situations it suffers losses and has difficulty wielding force, given the legal limitations, and such warfare ends indecisively.

Such considerations have led the IDF in the past to moderation in the Lebanese theater, and in recent years it hasn’t been eager to get embroiled in conflicts in the West Bank or Gaza involving “low-tech” battles that harm the preparedness of its combat units. This is particularly true now, when the Gideon multiyear plan formulated by the army is aimed at preparing it for the wars of the future, based on advanced technologies.

More than anything the IDF is zealous about its prestige, its resources and its freedom of action, and that influences its judgment on how to best serve the country’s security.

The battle against Iran is different. In Syria, the IDF can conduct high-tech warfare that demonstrates its high-quality abilities, rather than the limited capabilities of the ground forces. It can operate there without domestic or foreign restrictions concerning legitimacy, and without having to deal with human rights organizations and United Nations investigations.

From the IDF’s point of view, an escalation against Iran, which suffers from military and economic weakness and lacks substantial international legitimacy, will lead Tehran to relinquish its strongholds in Syria. Thus a security threat will be removed and the army’s public image – which Eisenkot is particularly sensitive to – will soar. Moreover, the Gideon plan will not be disrupted and there may even be greater willingness to add funding to the defense budget for long-term enhancements. Motivation to do military service, which tends to rise after successful rounds of violence, will certainly not disappoint this time and will provide oxygen to the dying compulsory-draft model.

That’s why the risk that an escalation could cause thousands of missiles to fall on the home front and fatally undermine public trust in the IDF is not currently playing a role in the army’s considerations. Under these circumstances we can also understand why the ambiguity that once characterized Israel's military operations against Iran have given way to public relations stunts – like the photo of the F-35 aircraft over Beirut.

But the importance of all this does not lie in a theoretical analysis of the army’s motives. We must understand that the military is a player in the political arena with its own interests, whose position must be studied critically by the public, even if behind it are the admired commanders of the “people’s army.”