ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Getting it Wrong

Getting it Wrong

29 June 2006

by Yisrael Ne’eman

Eviatar Ben Zedeff’s article “The Continuous Debacle” which appeared Tuesday is an unsubstantiated piece of pseudo intellectual slander dumped on the IDF. He defines the Israeli army as “a dysfunctional force that cannot defend Israel and back any political ends set by the government”. One would think the accusation concerns only the present, but it does not. His last sentence ties in a condemnation of Israeli deterrence over the past three decades. Furthermore he believes that Ariel Sharon and his 101 commandos established in the 1950s provided Israel with a deterrence that has never been regained.

He is wrong on all points. Sharon did not deter anyone although his unit did quite a bit of damage to both the Egyptians and Jordanians with their cross border retaliations against terror activity. The Gaza incidents were a prelude to the Sinai campaign of 1956 which led to ten years of quiet on the Egyptian front when the UN stationed troops on the Sinai side of the border. In 1967, when Nasser threatened Israel (moved 100,000 troops into Sinai and 1,000 tanks while blocking the port of Eilat) and demanded the removal of UN troops the international force fled overnight.

In the 1967 Six Day War Egypt lost Sinai and Gaza, Jordan – the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Syria – the Golan; however the first two were not impressed with the Israeli victory and would try again. Surprised by the Egyptian – Syrian onslaught during the Yom Kippur War (1973), the IDF recovered after several days and retaliated on the Golan front putting Damascus within artillery range. In the south the Israeli army counter attacked, crossed the Suez Canal and defeated the Egyptians. President Sadat effectively (although not officially) fired his army chief of staff before the war was over and only survived because of Russian threats of intervention.

Disengagement and limited forces agreements were signed in 1974 with Egypt (January) and Syrian (June). In 1977 Sadat began his peace initiative which resulted in a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Sadat told Syria’s Assad that there was no chance of defeating Israel. He would therefore make peace. Even though the peace with Egypt is very cold, Sadat and Egypt’s secular power elite does not seek battle with Israel. Furthermore the secular Syrian regime re-signs the disengagement with Israel every six months since then. Jordan who fought Israel in 1967, and on the Golan in an attempt to aid Damascus in 1973, signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. Three secular Arab state regimes have been deterred from doing battle with Israel for over 30 years.

Such deterrence might not last forever, but secular power elites with much to lose in “this world” do not look for battles which can cost them dearly. A radical Islamist overthrow in any of these countries could end deterrence. Let us remember that Khomeinist Iran is not deterred.

Now for the issues of today and the Palestinians. Ben Zedeff claims that Israel “cannot devise a retaliation strategy”, “cannot defend the Israeli population against a major threat” and “cannot defend Israeli sovereignty”. His claim that Israel cannot halt all the Kassam rockets is correct, at least for the moment. Air force Chief Eliezer Shkaidy has admitted it. The first three claims are wild exaggerations. Israel’s retaliation strategy since 2000 and the outbreak of the Palestinian violence have included thousands of incursions and forays and arrests of Palestinian terrorists, whether identified with Fatah, Hamas or the Islamic Jihad. The security fence around Gaza and parts of the West Bank has also helped. Furthermore there were the major Defensive Shield and Determined Way operations (ordered by PM Ariel Sharon) which began to break the back of the terror offensive in 2002. It is fair to say that the suicide bomber mentality is neither crushed nor deterred, but damage to the Israeli population and infrastructure was and is greatly reduced. Today there is the unfolding Summer Rain operation in Gaza, not only as an attempt to retrieve Israel’s abducted soldier but as massive punishment for the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government complicity in continuing terror attacks whether by tunneling under the fence and attacking IDF positions or through Kassam barrages on Sderot and the western Negev. There is certainly a retaliation strategy.

Where is there a “major threat” to Israel’s population? With all due respect, the terror attacks at the moment are not “major” even though they must be dealt with and eradicated. If there were major threats or attempted attacks, apparently, they have been liquidated or contained since they did not happen. Or as we know the terrorists can be inept also, such as their failed attempt to destroy the Pi Glilot natural gas tanker farm several years ago. It is true that Kassams fired into the Ashkelon area could hit strategic targets, but then, that is one reason why the Summer Rain operation is in progress. Israeli sovereignty is being defended, even if there is not 100% success all the time.

Finally the IDF’s level of performance is light years away from the early 1950s. From 1948-52 Israel had three commander-in-chiefs. In the early fifties the army had no real budget, little planning, was unable to defend its borders, lacked social cohesion due to massive immigration and suffered from a low fighting spirit when most of the Palmach officers were either removed from the army or resigned their commissions. Today’s special units and infantry are made up entirely of volunteers. Israel has solid tank and artillery units, neither of which existed in the early 1950s. Today just about anyone who does not want to be a combat soldier will find his way out. Morale is much higher than it was 50 years ago.

At present Israel’s borders are violated in the main by Kassam rockets and that is now being dealt with. One can argue that the response is too late. Fair enough.

Turning northwards, even the Shi’ite fundamentalist Hizbollah, a group very hard to hold in check, backed down after firing rockets across the northern border a month ago. They were the recipients of an IDF pounding. Within half a day they pleaded with the UN to arrange a cease-fire.

When given the order by the government the IDF knows how to defend the country. If there is a problem, it lies with the civilian sector more than anyone else. Often, diplomacy, peace talks and negotiations get in the way, especially when performed in bad faith by the other side.

The IDF is not “badly trained and organized as a fighting force” as Ben Zedeff claims. Israel could never bring down the level of terror attacks (in particular suicide bombings) if such were the case. Sunday’s “debacle” should never have happened and certainly an investigation is necessary. Tank units should not be ambushed, and to make matters worse, this tank crew was led by an officer. Quite possibly routine orders, combat readiness and training need to be improved.

But that is far from declaring the IDF a “dysfunctional force”. Gross exaggeration and crying “Wolf!” distracts everyone from an accurate definition of the true problems and sizing them up in their proper proportions. Only then can there be solutions.