February 23, 2011
For a few hours, the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City is firmly in the hands of the Israeli military: soldiers in red berets have cordoned off the centre of the square that abuts the ancient monument, and are keeping a watchful eye on racks of polished assault rifles. Dozens of Israeli flags flutter in the wind, along with the red-and-white banners of the army’s Paratroopers Brigade.
As on most evenings, the square that is home to the holiest site in Judaism is packed. Tonight, however, the masses have come not to pray but to cheer on conscripts starting their three-year national service. With family and girlfriends looking on, the young men step forward one by one. They offer a shaky salute and accept a copy of the Torah and an M-16 rifle before returning to the ranks. The ceremony closes with soldiers and spectators alike singing the national anthem – “Hatikvah”, or hope.
The scene – repeated regularly throughout the year – says much about the status of the armed forces in public life. The young paratroopers are joining a body they know is trusted, even revered, above all other state institutions. They also know its funding, technology and leadership expertise outstrips those of any other in the region. Indeed, the superiority of the Israel Defense Forces has been evident for so long that no regular army has dared to challenge them on the battlefield in almost 40 years.
For the time being, Israel’s most immediate foes – Hizbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – appear to want calm. Israel fought deeply controversial military campaigns against Hizbollah in 2006 and against Hamas in 2008-09. Though neither conflict produced a conclusive victory, the IDF inflicted sufficient damage to create a deterrent, and forced a sharp drop in rocket attacks from Gaza.
What is more, Israel’s military edge will increase in the coming years. The air force has ordered 20 American F-35 fighter jets, the world’s most advanced attack aircraft. The navy will receive two new submarines. Israel is pouring money into missile defence systems. In recent years, military leaders have also worked hard to spruce up the capabilities of the country’s conventional land forces.
But despite the IDF’s towering position, some analysts have started asking difficult questions – and are drawing increasingly harsh conclusions. They fear the military is facing serious challenges, on and off the battlefield, that will ultimately blunt its abilities and erode the country’s strategic advantages. At a time of unprecedented upheaval in the region, with the peace process lying dormant once again, their arguments should worry Israeli policymakers.
Analysts point to the sheer number of threats with which the military must deal, from Iran’s nuclear programme to the growing arsenal of rockets and missiles at the disposal of Hizbollah and Hamas. Adding to these concerns is the recent overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt , and consequent fears that a cornerstone of Israel’s security – the 1979 peace treaty with Cairo – could ultimately unravel.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Iranian warships in the Mediterranean this week, the first such voyage since 1979, was a fresh reminder of Tehran’s determination to expand its influence. In response, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned: “Israel’s security needs will grow, and the defence budget must grow accordingly.”
At the same time, there is concern that the Israeli military, for all its prowess, is increasingly shackled by the country’s growing isolation and a shift in strategy by its enemies. Some Israelis also fear that the 44-year occupation of the Palestinian territories and two decades of diplomatic deadlock have weakened the IDF, not least by removing international support for Israeli military action.
Indeed, Lt Gen Benny Gantz, who took over as IDF chief of staff this month, faces an entirely new set of legal and political constraints. He leads a military whose reputation – at least outside the country – has been tarnished by allegations of war crimes, most recently after last year’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla . The wave of recent criticism has in turn triggered a concerted international effort to bring senior Israeli officers to court to face criminal charges.
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Even among Israelis, the army has lost some of its lustre after a string of scandals involving its leaders. Lt Gen Gantz was picked at the last minute after the frontrunner faced accusations that he illegally took over neighbouring land to expand his home. The revelations followed a series of widely publicised scandals and incidents, including allegations of a dirty tricks campaign linked to the succession.
The real problem for the IDF, however, lies not so much in the human fallibility of senior officers but in their inability to formulate a coherent response to a changing security environment. That, at least, is the thesis advanced by Ron Tira, an Israeli military analyst and a former air force pilot. “We are now facing a new warfare paradigm by the enemy. The old approaches are not very useful, we need to come up with something new – and we are not there yet,” he says.
The threat today is not invasion or battlefield defeat. Instead, argues Mr Tira, Israel’s enemies in Iran, Syria, southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have launched a war of attrition aimed at the “long-term erosion of the Israeli will and the long-term erosion of Israeli legitimacy”. The approach cleverly combines political and military elements, conventional and non-conventional warfare, and draws on the international community’s increasing frustration with Israel.
For the proponents of this approach, military defeat can be transformed into political success. Mr Tira notes that Israel may have deterred Hizbollah and Hamas – but at the cost of its own diplomatic standing. “We cannot do these wars every two years,” he argues. At the very least, future campaigns will have to achieve their goals as quickly as possible – both because of diplomatic pressure and because Israel’s biggest cities will be facing attack from potentially thousands of rockets and missiles. “This is the first kind of threat that we don’t know how to remove,” Mr Tira says.
His assessment is far from universally shared, but even serving IDF officers acknowledge the challenges are growing. One senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the IDF face four distinct threats: non-conventional weapons, especially the Iranian nuclear programme; conventional armies, whose potential is increasingly married to “asymmetric” capabilities from militias and non-conventional military operators such as Hamas and Hizbollah; the fast-expanding missile and rocket arsenal of those groups; and terrorism. “Israel’s deterrence power is still overwhelming. But in all these areas the trends are negative,” the officer says.
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Among the biggest worries for military planners is the prospect of a massive missile and rocket attack. Hizbollah, in particular, has built up a vast arsenal in recent years, estimated by Israel to include 40,000 to 50,000 rockets and missiles. These include an unspecified number supplied by Iran and Syria able to reach targets deep inside Israel, including Tel Aviv and surrounding population centres. Hamas , too, has beefed up its arsenal since the Gaza war ended.
Despite the perception that Middle East wars have always been “terrible”, in past conflicts adversaries made an effort to keep civilian populations out of the fighting, says Shlomo Brom, a former director of the IDF’s strategic planning division, now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “The big change is that the civilian population is now being drawn into the war.” Mr Brom believes this shift will force “Israel to fight very short wars. And it forces Israel to define realistic goals for these wars.”
Lurking behind the debate over the IDF’s challenges and capabilities is an altogether more controversial issue: the forces’ role in maintaining the occupation of the West Bank and, until 2005, Gaza. It is a role that has come increasingly to define the Israeli military in the eyes of the world, gradually eclipsing earlier images of heroism and daring achievement.
Analysts such as Martin van Creveld, Israel’s best-known military historian, argue that the long years and countless soldiers that the IDF have devoted to policing a civilian population, manning checkpoints and scuffling with protesters has sapped the military’s strength. “If you fight the weak, you become weak. And we have been fighting the weak for far too long,” he says.
The occupation puts the IDF in a position where they have everything to lose and nothing to gain, he adds. “When you fight the weak and you kill the weak, then you are a criminal. And when the weak kill you, then you are an idiot. That is the dilemma.”
This glum view of the IDF’s predicament is not shared by Israeli leaders, who rarely miss an opportunity to praise the armed forces. In some ways, their confidence is justified: the forces are, and will almost certainly remain, technically capable of dealing with all security threats that arise. That assessment, analysts say, extends even to the scenario, still highly improbable, of a renewed confrontation with Egypt.
Yet few can seriously doubt that – in political terms at least – the IDF’s room for manoeuvre is shrinking. What use, some may ask, is overwhelming firepower when the international community prevents its use? And how effective are new American fighter jets and German submarines when the enemy is targeting Israel’s legitimacy as well as its cities?
International pressure alone may not be enough to prevent Israel ordering an attack, especially when and if the country concludes it faces an existential threat. But the political price of military action is rising steadily, making a repeat of the recent campaigns fought in Lebanon and Gaza increasingly difficult. For the current crop of generals, this new military and political environment poses a challenge very different from that faced by their predecessors.
“In the 1970s, the Israeli chief of staff faced a lot of problems, but he did not have an intellectual challenge,” says Mr Tira. “Today, the question of how to apply power is a major problem – the borders between the military, the political and the legal are becoming more and more blurred.”