Thursday, June 20, 2013

Are the Israel Defense Forces Finally Ready for the Next Lebanon War?

Are the Israel Defense Forces Finally Ready for the Next Lebanon War?

Amos Harel, tABLET June 19, 2013

Israel's failures in 2006 foreshadow the challenges that lie ahead in a
fractured Middle East---and the coming wars there

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

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
pita filled 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" >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

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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