Guest post: Israel and “The Next Lebanon War”

This is a guest post by Brian Goldfarb, a frequent commenter and occasional guest-writer on this blog.

Israeli soldiers control a Skylark drone during a drill on Jan. 16, 2012

Western military analysts have, for many years now, designated the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) as the best small army in the world. This, in the main, is down to the stunning victory in 1967. Israel, vastly outnumbered and with equipment no better than that of her enemies, fought and destroyed 3 different armies in a matter of a week. To the outside, civilian, observer, part of the reason was that the Israeli population generally was much better educated. Thus, they were, as a whole, better able to learn how to use ever-more sophisticated equipment.

This superiority was backed up by a highly-educated, very flexible and, above all, determined set of planners, both tactically and strategically. This was reinforced when the Yom Kippur war of 1973 broke out. Despite being caught by surprise (and suffering relatively heavy casualties as a result – I was told later by other Israeli students at my university that the husband of one of my students – a tank commander – had been killed on the last day of the war), the Israelis bounced back to take more territory from the Syrians – indeed, the road to Damascus was open – and to cross the Suez Canal.

Who knows what might have happened next, had the UN-brokered cease fire not taken hold. By then, both sides were war weary.

However, 40 years later, we are being asked to take a different story on board. The headline of this article, from the online US Jewish magazine The Tablet, wants us to consider a very different question: “Are the Israel Defense Forces Finally Ready for the Next Lebanon War?”

The author, Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel, starts his long piece with the following:

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.

Thus, Israel may or may not (and with or without US assistance) be able to take out, or at least severely delay the fact of, an Iranian nuclear bomb, but there are other, equally existential, threats.

Harel is arguing that things stopped going Israel’s way, in military terms, with the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. He precedes this with a claim that the rot set in with the Second Intifada, but I think that this is a tortuous argument. He is asking us to believe that the military failed to contain a mixture of civil uprising and terrorist activity, rather than this being a failure of intelligence. He does have a better case when it comes to Hezbollah daring to take on the IDF in 2006.

It is, indeed, arguable that the Israeli defence and intelligence establishments were taken by surprise by the scale and range of Hezbollah’s rockets: no-one expected that they could (and did) reach Haifa. Despite Nasrallah’s later statements that if he had known what the weight of the Israeli response would be, he wouldn’t have started the action in the first place (implying that his armaments were severely degraded), it’s clear that the Israelis failed to achieve a significant military victory. The problem was compounded by there being a Prime Minister in place with no significant military experience (Ehud Olmert), alongside a Defence Minister (Amir Peretz) whose major claim to fame was not his trade union experience, but that he was possibly the first Mizrachi to hold such a high position. (And I do not intend to demean Mizrachis in general, only this one in particular.)

As Harel has it,

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.

Things got no better two years later with Operation Cast Lead, when the Israeli Government finally got fed-up with Hamas and its allies firing rockets into Israel with apparent impunity, and responded with massive force, including the incursion of ground troops. OK, Hamas was mauled, as were other groups such as Islamic Jihad, but the cost to Israel (not least in adverse PR) was great. A greater short-term cost came when the United nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) commissioned a report from a group led by former South African Supreme Court Judge Goldstone which condemned Israeli supposed crimes against humanity, without condemning Hamas’s crimes. The claw-back by Goldstone later was, inevitably, too little, too late.

This all affected the self-confidence of the Israeli planners.

Oddly enough, the critique is aimed specifically at the planners of ground-based troop movements. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) gets off lightly in all this. This may be because, despite his efforts at distancing himself, Harel may be heavily influenced by the success of the IAF during Operation Pillar of Cloud during the 2012-13 confrontation with Hamas. Without the involvement of ground troops (thankfully – no young Israelis put “in harm’s way”), precision strikes by the IAF severely degraded Hamas’s potential to strike at Israel, so much so that Hamas have recently deployed 600 of their own to try and prevent other groups firing rockets into Israel.

So, is the IDF prepared for the next war in Lebanon? Harel seems to think that the answer is “probably”. I’m inclined to agree with him (for what that’s worth): Syria is a broken-backed state – there’s no way Assad could attack Israel via the Golan Heights; Hezbollah is heavily involved on Assad’s side in Syria and is facing opposition within Lebanon, and also suffering from IAF raids on attempts to restock its armaments; and Hamas can’t get resupplied from Iran and Egypt is less than willing to do Iran’s job for them.

And, of course, the Israeli planners have learned (regrettably, the hard way) not to plan to fight the last war better. Learn to fight the next war better!

Anne adds:

Thank you to Brian for your cogent analysis of the Tablet article.

I would add that in my opinion, the IDF’s failure in Lebanon in 2006 was the result of both poor military planning, training and preparedness, but at least as importantly there was a massive failure at the political level. I remember the huge frustration of us civilians that the government refused to designate the fighting “a war”, thereby preventing the delivery of aid to civilians on the front line in the north, as well as financial aid to war-struck businesses in the north. This action, or rather non-action, bordered on criminal negligence. It did not help anyone to call the fighting a war after it was all over. Olmert and Peretz would not allow the IDF to expend its full strength in Lebanon when they got the situation under hand, and it was this as much as the IDF’s own failures that led to the apparent defeat in 2006.

I agree that the lessons learned in 2006 led to the military, if not PR, success in OCL in Gaza in 2008. I don’t think there is anything that Israel can do to prevent bad PR when in the midst of fighting terrorists in urban warfare. The world is always determined to impute the worst possible motives to Israel no matter what it does, and human rights has become a religion in its own right – woe betide anyone seen violating the human rights of a terrorist!

In that respect I take great issue with Harel’s words about Cast Lead:

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).

That is most definitely not the case. Most Israelis were extremely frustrated that the war was not continued to its conclusion, i.e. wiping out Hamas altogether. The too-early conclusion was once again dictated by the political echelon and the weakling Ehud Olmert.

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.

Again, this is most definitely not so. The Palestinians, or specifically Hamas, claimed that most of their casualties were civilians, but careful research by bloggers such as Elder of Ziyon, together with sites such as the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center and Herzliya’s IDC International Institute for Counter-Terrorism have indisputably proven that most Palestinian casualties were indeed armed combatants.

After the fiasco of the Goldstone Report and its retraction, I think Israel can safely ignore these UN-sponsored efforts as warfare by other means.

Harel goes on to say:

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.

That may or may not be so but Harel does not bring any evidence to support his statement, and the ground forces have not been properly tested since Lebanon because of the political echelon’s own decisions, the first time to withdraw early in OCL, and the second time not to allow the ground troops to go into Gaza at all in Operation Pillar of Defence.

To paraphrase Brian’s concluding remarks, we are left to hope and pray that not only the IDF has learned to fight the next war better, but that the political echelon has learned its bitter lessons too.

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11 Responses to Guest post: Israel and “The Next Lebanon War”

  1. Ben says:

    Very interesting post! If there are other blogs out there which discuss the military history of Israel I would love to find them. I just recently finished reading “Six Days of War” by Michael Oren, and it was amazing to see how even though things were apparently shaping up very badly for Israel leading up to the war, the Israelis fought and won the triumph we all look at today as the model of Israeli military greatness.

    Israel has been blessed with rather inept enemies who are blinded by hate.

    Self-critique, although stressful and a cause of disunity, often turns out to be healthy in the long run for the western militaries who utilize it. The Arabs lack this to a large extent. The Six Day War was an excellent example of how technology, firepower, and alliances make no difference if your military is more experienced at looking good in parades than fighting battles (Egypt). Up until the last minute the Israelis were holding out for peace, and squabbling over what to do, but when it came time to fight they FOUGHT. The Arabs are great at posturing, but when the real fighting starts they look for a way out and put more effort into their ridiculous propaganda than fighting. People who want to see what is really going on can see through the propaganda, and those who hate Israel will eat it up. All this to say… Israel knows how to get the job done when the real fighting starts, and the rest is in God’s hands.

    -Ben

  2. Elliott Alhadeff says:

    Interesting article. What was omitted was the influence of western states, especially that of the US where Condolesa Rice pressured Israel of an early cease fire. Given Omert’s and Peretz’ lack of military expertise the cessation of hostilities was probably premature. The political landscape is materially different now. Obama and the US are borderline irrelevant in the next confrontation – intelligent and knowledgeable military and political leaders recognizing America’s utter lack of influence and incompetence in foreign and military policy. Presently, given the ongoing cannibalization amongst the various Arabic religious factions reigning throughout the Middle East, Israel’s only serious threat comes from Iran’s nuclear potential. And as Iran continues to expend more and more of its increasingly limited resources attempting to protect and expand its influence, it, and those groups it supports become more and more militarily impotent Standing away from the trees, the forest appears to be that of a major decline in the financing terrorist activities in the non-Arab countries. Fortunately, for the US and the rest of the international community, a non-intervention policy allowing the combatants to render themselves impotent will inure to their benefit, and especially that of Israel. “Fighting between my enemy and the enemy of my enemy – what could be better?”

    • anneinpt says:

      I absolutely agree that not enough weight was given to Western pressure. I’m not sure though that Obama is that irrelevant if it comes to another war. If not pressure from the administration, it comes from entities like the EU and the UN. No matter how irrelevant, Israel’s politicians always seem to find it hard to resist their pressure. It’s quite pathetic really.

      I share your hope that our enemies will kill each other and leave us alone. However, as I have noted before, I am concerned that the fighting will somehow spill over into Israel and embroil us in another war.

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        Elliott says, above, that “Israel’s only serious threat comes from Iran’s nuclear potential.” While, like many others, I only wish that were true, I have an uncomfortable feeling that it isn’t. Nasrallah and Hezbollah may be so embroiled in Syria and Lebanon that the notion of opening up a third front against Israel might just give them nightmares. On the other hand, there’s nothing in the “Terrorists’ Manual of things to do to your enemies” that says that they have to be sensible about what they do.

        And here’s a horrible thought: what if the West fail to arm the rebels, and Assad, with Hezbollah assistance, regains control of Syria? Forget the revenge against the non-Alawites and other non-Shia, this would also release Hezbollah for action against Israel, as well as restore their lines of communication and re-supply from Iran.

        How’s that for an Israeli nightmare?

  3. peteca1 says:

    Just my personal opinion … but I would be very surprised if Israel does not possess the capability to win another Lebanon War. I’m sure it could. However, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the degree of destruction would be much higher in another Lebanon War. The reasons are entirely practical. Hezbollah and its allies has built up a very sizable cache of rockets aimed at Israeli cities. The possible loss of life in Israel is much higher this time – and therefore I have no doubt that any response by the IDF would be powerful. Hence, Lebanon will be really broken up if another war occurs – it could become a failed state. It is also conceivable that some of those Hezbollah rockets may contain extraordinary weapons obtained from Syria – of course we hope not. But who knows.

    Really – the big concern I think is that the Mideast is entirely breaking up and re-shaping itself. Lebanon is dicey. Syria is falling apart in a terrible war. Egypt is completely unstable. Iran is still a major problem. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely to me that an Israel-Lebanon war will really stop simply along those borders. Who knows the next final outcome?
    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      Hi Pete, long time no see. I agree with you that Israel has the military capability of winning another war. She had that ability last time too. What’s lacking is political will and/or the political ability to withstand international pressure – which always calls for a ceasefire the minute Israel starts winning and not a moment before then.

      Lebanon becoming a failed state is actually not a pleasant scenario for Israel. It opens the gate for even more terrorist activity unmonitored and not controlled by any responsible government. It would be Gaza writ large – a rather frightening prospect.

      I agree too with your assessment that the Middle East is breaking up. The question remains to be seen how it will look when the fighting ceases.

  4. Reality says:

    Our biggest problems when fighting wars is as you say Anne that the Prime ministers & foreign ministers have always been told to hold back by various US & British “partners” The army higher ups have never liked this scenario & have always felt frustrated that nothing was completed satisfactorily & therefore the next time around we suffered yet more losses. Its time that Israelis officials say that in the next war (& unfortunately there probably will be one) we will do what we have to until WE are satisfied & any (in)humanitarian, or UN ,or whatever reports afterwards be damned.(We anyway will lose on that front so at least make sure that our citizens are safe for a few more years)

    • anneinpt says:

      Too true. As you say, if we’re going to get condemned – and we always are, as sure as the sun rises in the east – we might as well have things go our way first.

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