'Quiet, They're Shooting'

The broad support that runs through Israeli society for the second war in Lebanon indicates that when the moment of truth came, things are as they were before the growing willingness to criticize the army, lowered motivation to enlist and even the questioning of the legitimacy of using military force.

The almost instinctive and unqualified willingness to support the use of the Israel Defense Forces as the first - and usually the only - means to resolve problems is strongly grounded in the fabric of Israeli society. One of the perceptions of this "security culture" argues that Israel has no diplomatic option upon which it can rely. Consequently the only remaining option is the military one. In other words, the use of arms is forced on Israel, and for lack of any other option, it is compelled to go to war and to win to prevent its destruction.

Speaking of the hostility Israel faces from Arab countries, Shimon Peres wrote in 1970 (he may regret the words): "Israel does not have a real option to turn to the diplomatic track in order to obtain a compromise that embodies a real turning point. [...] No compromise would satisfy the Arab side."

This view was quite firmly grounded in reality in the 1950s. Arab leaders reiterated their desire to destroy Israel, armed their countries and took military steps that bolstered Israel's fear that those threats might be carried out. they might well carry out those threats. The need for military readiness at any time to be ready made military power top priority. Even after its was realized that there was a diplomatic option, and peace agreements were signed with Egypt and Jordan, the military option was still viewed as the first choice should a problem arise with a rival in the region.

Strength only

Sociologist Uri Ben Eliezer maintains that the veneration of military might and making it the vehicle of policy goes back to the 1930s. From 1936-1956, the military solution to the Arab-Jewish conflict gradually metamorphosed into a value, a formula and ideology.

The military option became the ideology of the younger generation in the 1940s, though this was not the case for society as a whole. It gained legitimacy and began to exert an influence on political decision-making only during the War of Independence. In Ben Eliezer's view, militarism became a central ideology of Israeli society and part of the political worldview of its movers and shakers: Organized violence was seen as a suitable and desirable solution to national problems, while moderation, striving to negotiate and compromise were perceived as weakness. Like many others, Ben Eliezer ties the aspiration for strength (and its veneration) to the trauma of the Holocaust.

David Ben-Gurion, who almost single-handedly formulated Israel's "security culture," consciously developed Israel's awe of military might. It shows in his comments after the IDF's victory in the Sinai Campaign, in October 1956:

"The Revelation at Sinai has been renewed in these times with the momentum of our army's courage," he stated in a post-war address to the Knesset. "This has been the greatest military campaign in our people's history, and one of the greatest in the history of nations. Military historians will delve into and research the secret of the wondrous campaign carried out by the IDF in just a few days."

After Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan was one of main proponents of the veneration of military strength. As chief of staff, he worked energetically to pull Egypt into war with Israel. As someone who believed that only an actual demonstration of Israel's military might would deter the Arabs, he looked for any pretext to kindle hostilities. Dayan more than anyone else promoted the war plans in 1955-1956 that led to the Sinai Campaign.

The idea that Israel had no choice but to use military force as the exclusive means to realize policy was very well assimilated. Every time it was decided to go to war (or to embark on a military campaign), the vast majority of the citizenry stood behind that decision. Most of the harshest critics of militarism fell silent when the battles began, as happened in the famous article of Amiram Nir (who called for a halt to criticism as the 1982 Lebanon war began), entitled "Quiet, They're Shooting."

Years earlier,though Mapam opposed Dayan's desire for war with Egypt, its paper Al Hamishmar ran an editorial the moring after the Sinai Campaign broke out that said: "The storm that we said could not be prevented ...has indeed occurred. [...] We will not go back at this time to the question of whether it was necessary that the events take place on this track. [...] Now, all that counts is that we are at war. [...] The Arab leaders continually brandish the sword of revenge and destruction over the head of Israel. [...] We must now be ready and alert. The nation is mobilized."

As prime minister, Golda Meir, too, ignored any possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough, and established her government's policy exclusively on military might. Yitzhak Rabin, when he served as ambassador to the United States, vigorously urged the government to adopt a policy based on the use of military force. This was particularly marked in the decisive weight given to his approach in formulating the policy of in-depth bombing of Egypt during the War of Attrition.

Later, when he served as prime minister in the mid-1970s, Rabin based his policy vis-a-vis the Arab countries on military strength as the principal and preferred component, ignoring all the signs and signals that pointed to an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough and adhering to an entrenchment of Israel behind its military might.

Rabin also supported the war in Lebanon and even advised using more massive force than planned by the IDF as it besieged Beirut. The fundamental about-face in his views occurred during his second term as prime minister, and it led to his signing diplomatic accords with the Palestinians.

First cracks

The 1982 war in Lebanon was a turning point. The automatic legitimacy that Israeli society gave until then to all uses of military force by the "military experts," began to give way. However, despite a certain amount of erosion in the national consensus, Israel's policy makers did not hesitate to continue to use the IDF to attain political goals, even when no danger was posed to the existence of the state. Two of the most outstanding instances were large-scale military campaigns in Lebanon - operations Accountability and Grapes of Wrath. However, in these cases, too, the vast majority of Israelis apparently kept the traditional view of using the IDF.

It's too early to determine whether the current war in Lebanon will widen the cracks in the consensus on the use of force. The military has been criticized but there doesn't seem to be any real change. Unfortunately, under the umbrella of this consensus, sweeping support is given to whatever the IDF does, without distinguishing between the reasonable and necessary use of force and using it against targets that have nothing to do with the war with the enemy fighters.

Political scientist Avner Yaniv, one of the wisest observers of Israel's policy making, wrote: "In a country in which questions of national security absolutely overshadow any other subject, no real debate has yet been held over the very morality of the use of military force."

The war with Hezbollah sharply exposed the implications of venerating military might. Israel has invested billions upon billions in equipping the army with state-of-the-art weapons systems. And instead of a "small, smart army," the IDF has become a "huge, sophisticated army." Electronic systems, satellites and pilotless drones make it possible for commanders to see what is going on deep inside enemy territory.

But all this, it turns out, does not make the IDF's fight against guerrillas more effective or successful. The IDF indeed can see what is going on "over the hill," but not always what is right under its own nose.

In the war now, military force is the be all and end all. Perhaps, its failure to attain its goals will lead to rethinking the use of the army as the solution to every problem and in time will lead to less veneration of power and greater understanding of its limitations.