While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to threaten Iran, another—perhaps more urgent—challenge has developed: the implications of the Syrian civil war and surrounding regional chaos on Israel’s security. The Arab Spring, with its ongoing creation of failed states on Israel’s borders, has become a major factor in Israel’s strategic environment. Since the beginning of this year, the Israeli Air Force has struck three times in Syria, hitting convoys and stockpiles of modern weapons systems before they were transferred to Hezbollah. The historical event that preoccupies Israeli military planners and commentators today is not the attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, or the tank battles of the Yom Kippur War, whose 40th anniversary will be commemorated this year, but the 2006 war in Lebanon, which showed Israel to be markedly unprepared for the kinds of future wars it is likely to wage.
It is strange, in a way, that the 2006 Lebanese war left a much more visible mark on the Israeli psyche than that terrible period of the Second Intifada, when more than 1,100 Israeli civilians and soldiers died within five years. Though the death toll of the Lebanon war has been much smaller (165 on the Israeli side), it remains a national trauma, nearly seven years later—a small Yom Kippur War, despite the absence of any serious military threat to the army or to the country. The number of books published about each event could serve as a good illustration. During the last decade, only three books were written by Israelis about the Intifada. More than 10 books were published about Lebanon, including soldiers’ diaries and novels. (The 1973 war, by the way, leads the list: Around five new books about the war were published every year in the last decade. In this anniversary year, more than 10 new books are expected.)
What’s clear is that the trauma is related to Israelis’ disappointment with the IDF’s stunningly poor performance. About a year before the Lebanon war broke out, the Second Intifada had more or less ended, if not with a decisive victory against Palestinian terrorism than at least with a general sense that the Israeli public had stood up to the challenge. It might have been our very unique version of that remarkable British stiff upper lip—which naturally involved much more kvetching. But when it was finally over, West Bank Palestinians seemed less interested in launching suicide bomb attacks, and calm returned to the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
But then, suddenly, in July 2006, panic returned. Not only did Hezbollah surprise the IDF by killing eight soldiers and hijacking the bodies of two others across the Lebanese border, but the Shiite organization continued to shoot thousands of rockets at the Northern part of Israel for 34 days. The IDF seemed helpless in its attempts to stop the bombardments. Israel tried bombing areas from which Hezbollah launched short-range rockets—and failed. It bombed some Lebanese infrastructure (bridges, roads, a petrol reservoir at the Beirut airport)—and Hezbollah didn’t stop. It then went for limited military ground incursions—nothing happened. The last attempt occurred during the final 60 hours—a wider ground maneuver, but Hezbollah kept on shooting rockets until the ceasefire was announced.
The political leadership did not perform any better. The country’s new Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, had been caught far away from his natural element. The former mayor of Jerusalem, called in to fill Ariel Sharon’s huge shoes just six months after Sharon suffered a stroke, hadn’t shown any particular interest in security issues before. But even Olmert knew more about Israel’s strategic environment than his choice for defense minister, former union leader Amir Peretz. I distinctly recall coming home after meeting with Peretz, a week into his new job, suspecting that I knew more about the IDF than the new minister did—a feeling that I was not used to and that frankly alarmed me.
Peretz’s abilities did not improve over time. Both generals and government colleagues saw his performance in the Defense Ministry as a joke. (One was reminded of David Halberstam’s remark about Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War: “He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.”) Unfortunately, the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the last member of a bizarre triumvirate that included Olmert and Peretz, did not improve the general outcome. Halutz, a famed fighter pilot, had been handpicked for the job by Sharon. When ministers and advisers warned Sharon of the new chief’s absolute lack of experience handling ground wars, the elderly prime minister answered: “But I’ll be there.”
Sharon, it turned out, was wrong. During the war, Halutz spent three days in medical treatment for a mysterious disorder, later reported to have been psychosomatic. A day after the war ended, the Israeli newspaper Maariv revealed that the IDF’s No. 1 officer had sold $30,000 worth of stocks, a few hours after the soldiers were kidnapped. Halutz resigned five months later, and Peretz followed him in May 2007. Only Olmert remained in office until early 2009, when a series of corruption scandals forced him to retire. But the Israeli public had lost its faith in Olmert much earlier. Most public opinion polls constantly showed that less than 10 percent of the voters believed that he was fit to remain in office after the war.
Now there is a new trend among Israeli journalists and, even more so among politicians and officers who were involved in crucial decisions during the war, to describe the 2006 Lebanese war in retrospect as a mixed blessing.
This emerging revisionist theory focuses on the balance of deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah. True, there were some military fiascos, as in any military operation, the war’s advocates argue, but since Hezbollah had not dared to launch rockets at Israel after the war, Israel had actually won the conflict—as the quiet on our northern border attests.
The theory is, of course, nonsense. Nobody can contest that the IDF is a much stronger military force than Hezbollah or that the damage the Israeli air force wrought upon the Shiite quarters of Beirut was much greater than the devastation created in Northern Israel by Hezbollah’s rockets. Hassan Nasrallah has paid dearly for his mistakes: His Iranian masters, who evidently felt the attack was premature (and would like to retain Hezbollah’s capabilities in case they need the organization to retaliate against a possible Israeli strike on their nuclear program), ordered him to lie low ever since. But that, as Sharon used to say, isn’t the question. The question now must be: Shouldn’t Israel—considering the huge gap in capabilities—have achieved better results?
The answer is self-evident: The IDF arrived ill-prepared for Hezbollah’s challenge on its own turf. Israeli commanders treated incursions into heavily manned and equipped Shiite outposts as if these were mere manhunts for wanted terrorists in West Bank villages. The soldiers discovered that much of the relevant equipment for guerrilla warfare was missing: They lacked medical equipment and armored vests. There was also a huge problem regarding supply of food and water, as the IDF was allegedly afraid to send logistics convoys to Lebanon. Why? According to all accounts, operational plans were blurry, some nonexistent, and actual orders were unclear.
In short, Israel’s decision-making process, in both the political and the military leadership, was terrible. After four days of airstrikes, Olmert could have simply announced that the operation achieved its goals and declared a ceasefire. Instead, he hesitated for four more weeks, while releasing ever more arrogant public statements. Worst of all, the IDF failed in its attempts to stop Hezbollah’s bombardments, while almost a third of the Israelis were confined to bomb shelters. To top it off, Olmert ordered the army to make a last-ditch attempt and occupy parts of Southern Lebanon, just as the U.N. Security Council had approved a ceasefire resolution. Thirty-five Israeli soldiers died in the last 60 hours of the war—a period during which nothing of any military or political value was achieved.
The 2006 Lebanon war ended in failure, not defeat. Failure was not a word that Israelis were used to associating with the army, to which so much of the nation’s finances are dedicated and in which their sons and daughters spend years of mandatory service. The lesson of the war for most observers and participants alike was that the strongest army in the Middle East could not stop a few thousand Hezbollah fighters from shooting rockets at the Galilee until the last hour. No wonder that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah became, at least for a period of time, a hero to the Arab world. This created deep mistrust in both the army’s commanders and actual capabilities among the Israeli public. Some reservist soldiers, returning from Lebanon, even took to the streets, attempting to imitate the huge reservist demonstrations after the Yom Kippur War that swept the country and pushed Golda Meir out of office.
Enter Gabi Ashkenazi. The IDF’s new chief of staff, called back into the army after Halutz’s resignation in February 2007 (he had retired in 2005, when Sharon chose Halutz over him), had been portrayed as the exact opposite of his predecessor. Israeli TV’s favorite satirical show, Eretz Nehederet, loved to present Ashkenazi as a tough guy, eating a pitafilled with sand, singing grunt songs, and explaining: “Don’t think for a minute that I’m the hostess who was here before me.” He is, in truth, much shrewder than he seemed both in his political instincts and in his deep understanding of what went wrong in the Lebanon war.
Ashkenazi quickly realized that the army needed a return to the basics: thorough operational plans and, more than anything else, better training. The IDF had neglected training in those hectic years of chasing Palestinian suicide bombers. Commanders’ courses were extended, and so were their terms in office. A few incompetent generals were removed from their jobs. Equipment and weapons for combat units were improved, and gradually the reservists’ trust in the system which they felt had betrayed them in Lebanon was rebuilt. The chief emphasized the need to supply forces on the ground with quick, precise intelligence—a serious weakness displayed by the IDF during the war in 2006.
Ashkenazi also grasped that time was against him. According to President George W. Bush’s memoirs, by spring 2007, Israeli intelligence had gathered information about the Syrian plan to build a nuclear reactor, secretly assisted by North Korea. The chief of staff was probably aware that an Israeli decision to strike might lead to a full-scale war with Syria. The army, he knew, had to be better prepared, and this should be done very quickly. (President Bashar al-Assad held back and did not to retaliate until after the strike in September 2007.)
While the chief labored furiously to improve the IDF’s image, he also worked to improve his own. He refused to grant interviews to the media, while holding numerous “background” meetings with journalists and giving many public speeches. The message was clear: The man in charge is focused not on words but on action. My only job, he was fond of saying (to me and others), is to make sure that after Israel’s next war nobody would need to ask who had won. Ashkenazi used the Israeli public’s need for correction after Lebanon very effectively to his advantage. The government approved substantial additions for the defense budget, many officers involved in the fiasco worked extra hard to compensate for their mistakes, motivation for service in combat units sky-rocketed among new recruits. Olmert played along, assuming that the only way to slightly improve his beaten public image would be proven military successes—the strike that destroyed the nuclear reactor, but also two mysterious assassinations of a Syrian general and his Hezbollah counterpart, airstrikes against Iranian weapon convoys in Sudan, and most important, Operation Cast Lead, a small-scale war against the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.
Cast Lead was marketed as the ultimate test of a new, improved IDF that had learned from its mistakes in Lebanon. Both the prime minister and the IDF leadership had chosen the target very carefully. Hamas was much less a formidable foe than Hezbollah. When it provoked Israel, after the collapse of an informal ceasefire along the Gaza border, the army reacted forcefully. This time, the IDF was well-prepared. The Southern Command, led by another tough-guy, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, handled an organized ground offensive that pushed Hamas fighters to underground hideouts in the Gaza City center but avoided a final confrontation, which could have cost Israel more casualties. When a new ceasefire was announced three weeks into the operation, most Israelis were satisfied, and their faith in the IDF’s capabilities was restored (though not their trust in Olmert’s leadership). Gabi Ashkenazi was Israel’s most popular public official. The IDF’s skilled spin doctors managed the perfect stunt: The army killed many Arabs (about 1,300), hardly suffered any casualties (13, almost half of them from friendly fire), and the soldiers came out of Gaza smelling like roses.
Several weeks passed before a more complicated picture was established: A large number of Palestinian casualties, it turned out, were civilians. Then came the Goldstone Report—exaggerated, biased against Israel, later revealed to be deeply flawed (by, among others, its own author)—but at the moment of publication quite damaging. The result: growing anti-Israeli sentiment in the West, along with demands to prosecute IDF officers as war criminals at the International Court in Hague.
The IDF has definitely improved since 2006, but not to the extent that the Israeli public believes. Cast Lead was not a real test for the army’s capabilities. However, that operation might be closer to the sort of challenges the IDF will encounter in the near future, as Syria collapses and Hezbollah continues to export its influence and fighters outside Lebanon.
After these wars—the military is fond of calling them “asymmetric” or “hybrid” conflicts—it is usually more difficult to determine who came out victorious. Even after Cast Lead and the next Gaza operation, Pillar of Defense, in late 2012, Hamas claimed victory. Although it suffered severe blows on the battlefront, the Palestinian organization could claim political success (as measured by its growing support in the Arab world and the de facto recognition of the Gaza regime by some non-Arab states), as well as military steadfastness in the face of Israel’s superior air and ground forces.
In an age of asymmetric warfare, which takes place simultaneously on the battlefield and in the media and political circles, Israeli generals seem plodding and insular and generally unwilling to learn from the mistakes of others. While every IDF officer will proudly tell you that President Barack Obama acquired from Israel some of the ideas behind the drone war against terrorists on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, hardly any of them can explain the lessons learned by the Americans, the Brits, or the Canadians in 11 long years of fighting (often misguidedly) in Afghanistan and previously Iraq.
In particular, the ground forces, once one of the IDF’s main sources of pride, have not improved at the same pace as the air force and the military intelligence, which were quick to recognize their mistakes in Lebanon. Changes, of course, are more easily made in such smaller, technology-based branches of the military. Air force squadrons have a small, mostly career-professional, core. They learn more quickly. The same goes for military intelligence that relies on a younger workforce (mandatory service and career officers), rather than in the ground forces, with their dependency on cumbersome reserve units. But even the regular-service army practices less than it used to before the beginning of the Second Intifada. Some of the generals claim that the IDF chooses to spend too much of its budget on expensive weapons systems, while spending too little on training. The reserve forces are also influenced by the growing economic rift: When the Israeli middle class protests the impossible cost of living, some of its members also wonder why they are not able to share the burden of military service with more parts of society. As a result, the IDF will soon also have to deal with the results of a new, ambitious, reform that will try to enlist the majority of the country’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi,Yeshiva students, an effort that will present challenges of its own.
Yet important changes have taken place inside the IDF, especially within Israel’s air force. In the last Gaza operation 100 percent of the bombs the air force used were precision-guided. The air force’s cooperation with the intelligence has gotten much tighter. The IDF calls these “short circles”: immediate air strikes—targeted killings and also hitting Hamas rocket units just as they launch rockets—based on fast, accurate information from both military intelligence and Shin Bet, the internal security service. The IDF has also invested in cyber-warfare, both on the defense side and it is reasonable to assume (though not discussed publicly) in offensive capabilities. The so-called C4I branch has a new cyber-defense department. Military Intelligence has a new cyber-department.
In 2011, the IDF established a new Special Operations Forces Command. Maj.-Gen. Shai Avital, a former commander of the IDF’s most prestigious commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, was pressed back into service to build the new command, named the “Depth Corps.” The intention, it seems, was to coordinate more effectively between elite units that operate behind enemy lines. During the 2006 war, the IDF had initiated more than 20 such operations, but their combined effect had been limited, mainly because these were improvised at the last moment, with no apparent strategic goals and not enough time for planning.
As a direct result of the Lebanon war, Israel also finally decided to invest in developing a rocket-intercepting system that would deal with short-range threats. The result, Iron Dome, has already proved itself operationally, successfully hitting 85 percent of the relevant rockets launched from Gaza last year. Soon, Israel will have a full multilayered intercepting system, the first of its kind in the world, though it will not provide the country with a hermetic solution to the tens of thousands of rockets obtained by its enemies. Another important technological breakthrough concerns the production and use of UAVs—a recent study has shown that the Israeli defense industry became the world’s leading exporter of drones while still supplying a large number of its products to the IDF.
The test of these capacities, and whether they add up to the army that Israel will need to fight a new kind of battle, is still ahead of us—and recent events in Syria suggest that this test may arrive sooner than many Israeli planners expected. Israeli units may soon be tested again on the ground, and both the current chief of staff, Gantz and the new Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, will quickly need to make up their minds regarding vast changes in the army’s structure. But since neither the chief nor the minister have previously been known as reformists, the question remains whether they would manage to implement the necessary changes before the IDF finds itself fighting another surprise war that will consign the 2006 war in Lebanon to the back bins of national memory. As Gen. Douglas MacArthur once put it, all military defeats can be summarized in two words: “Too late.”
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Amos Harel is the senior military correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. His newest book, T’da Kol Em Ivreea: The New face of the IDF, was published in Hebrew in March.
Amos Harel is the senior military correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. His newest book, T’da Kol Em Ivreea: The New face of the IDF, was published in Hebrew in March.