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