Amid Regional Turmoil, Is Israel Prepared For Future Conflict?
Parliamentary report suggests the government is not providing adequate direction to the military, leading to operational failures
In all democracies it is the government that is empowered with directing the military, setting policy both in war and peacetime. This is why, for example, the U.S president is also called the Commander-in-chief.
But according to a report by a governmental committee this may not be the case in Israel, where acute threats and frequent unwanted conflagrations make the army’s preparedness paramount in matters of immediate and long-term security.
A newly-released 54-page report compiled by a sub-body of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee found that while the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) remains a potent force, “[it] does not always address the real need [or formulate the correct missions],” a dysfunction largely attributed to a lack of political oversight.
The subcommittee focused on the implementation of the Gideon Plan, a five-year blueprint meant to enhance military efficiency and readiness for potential conflict, with the central criticism centered on the fact that the IDF devised its own requirements—a “bottom-up” process—rather than the government outlining strategic directives to guide the army’s actions.
In response, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that it would study the report, but described as “regrettable” what it deemed an attempt by members of the subcommittee to politicize the issue. “Israeli citizens know that Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu is leading an intelligent security policy that preserves Israel’s security in a turbulent Middle East,” the statement concluded.
For its part, the IDF vowed that the “lessons of the report will be learned” and “praised every process of examination.”
Such scrutiny takes on added significance when considering the widespread allegations of misconduct levelled against the government over the execution of Israel’s two most recent wars.
During the 2014 conflict with the Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Netanyahu was criticized for his perceived failure to adequately address the threat of what came to be known as ‘terror tunnels’—a subterranean network through which arms, supplies and personnel passed and from which Hamas fighters launched attacks against Israeli positions. The war lasted 50 days, largely due to a shift in strategy after the first two weeks of primarily aerial bombardment when the level of the danger became apparent and prompted the government to launch a land invasion into the Gaza Strip.
This about-face came only in the wake of fierce opposition by security cabinet member Naftali Bennett, in particular, who took the unusual step of slamming—while the fighting was ongoing—both Netanyahu and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who were previously warned about the risk posed by the tunnels. Bennett’s accusations were seemingly validated by a subsequent State Comptroller report which cited a lack of planning for dealing with the tunnels, some of which stretched into Israeli territory.
Similarly, the 2006 war against the Lebanon-based Hizbullah terror group is near-universally agreed to have been botched from both political and military standpoints, which led to calls for then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to resign. The Winograd Commission, tasked with investigating the operational mishaps, noted “grave faults, flaws, failings and shortcomings in the senior military command and political decision making echelons and…in their lack of thinking and strategic planning and failure to discuss alternatives and objectives.”
The absence of an overall national defense policy “always causes problems because there are no specific instructions vis-a-vis specific threats,” Colonel (res.) Atai Shelah, a former head of the IDF Warfare Doctrine Department, stressed to The Media Line. As a result, “most military operations are ‘local’ and disconnected from an overall strategy, which can therefore create a mess.”
Shelah believes that a much-needed comprehensive code “should provide the resources necessary to combat three intersecting types of threats: asymmetric ones originating from terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas; those emanating from ‘pseudo-nations’ such as Syria; and more conventional [dangers] from enemies such as Iran.”
To achieve this, he concluded, the government should develop well-defined guidelines for the IDF that still offer operational flexibility.
While much of the blame in the new report was placed on Netanyahu’s shoulders, others contend that the army brass should likewise be faulted for fostering a climate of disobedience, which they suggest is motivated by differences of opinion, personal animosity, future political aspirations or, more commonly, ideology.
As an example, the Israeli military’s undertakings in the Palestinian territories have at times contravened government policies viewed as anathema by military leaders. This applies to the construction in Jewish communities across the 1967 borders (as well as to Palestinian building in Area C of the West Bank [as designated by the 1993 Oslo Accords], which remains under full Israeli control); the implementation of punitive measure against the Palestinian leadership, such as the withholding of tax revenues collected by Israel on its behalf; the issuance of work permits to Palestinians and the degree of freedom of movement granted to them; and the overall enforcement of security, among other elements.
This divide was recently underscored when the Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group representing some 250 former military officials, came out against The Taylor Force Act—proposed U.S. legislation that would cut-off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it cracks down on incitement against the Jewish state, including paying salaries and stipends to prisoners convicted of grave offenses or their families if he/she was killed in action against an Israeli target. While supported by the Netanyahu government, the advocacy group rejected the bill, claiming it would deny the Palestinians “vital economic projects” and therefore “undermine PA stability; expand the circle of frustration and hostility; [and] erode security coordination.”
While the retired defense officers are perfectly entitled to voice their opinions now that they have re-entered civilian life, it is not unreasonable to assume that, while serving, the activities of some of them were at least partially shaped by an ideological affinity to the peace process, which presupposes the formation of an independent Palestinian state.
Most notably is the widely-publicized rejection of orders in 2010 by then-IDF chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as Mossad leader Meir Dagan, to devise operational plans to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, a move Prime Minister Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak were reportedly strongly considering. Ashkenazi purportedly refused the premier’s directive because he believed it would initiate a chain of events that would culminate in a war he disapproved of launching, irrespective of the fact that it was not his decision to make.
Military experts insist that the defense establishment must remain subordinate to the government, which is elected by the people. Likewise, both institutions—arguably the two most crucial bedrocks of Israeli society—must be on the same page if threats are to be correctly defined, a prerequisite for the formulation of appropriate counter-measures.
According to Colonel (ret.) Gabi Siboni, who served as a commander in the IDF’s Golani Brigade and currently directs the Military and Strategic Affairs Program at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, the situation is not as severe as it may seem.
While acknowledging to The Media Line that the military does indeed lack a degree of government oversight, it has nevertheless “been working methodically and on an operational level is prepared to [counter] threats.”
Siboni believes, rather, that the report is simply “part of an overall learning procedure and in due course some of its insights will probably be implemented.”
To this end, Monday’s report called on the government to “immediately begin the process of designing, validating, and approving a national defense outlook [to guide] the IDF’s operations.” Moreover, parliamentarians involved in drafting the report reinforced the importance in a democracy of presenting the public with information about Israel’s overall security doctrine.
To attribute the repeated need for such reminders and recommendations to systemic failures at both the political and military levels bodes poorly for a country constantly facing complex security challenges.