david horovitz 224.88.
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Last summer, as has been widely and derisively reported, the then chief of the General Staff Dan Halutz was so oblivious to the prospect of an imminent war that he booked a few days' respite from the demands of his job at what he assumed would be a tranquil retreat in the North. The rest, including Halutz's military career, is history.
This year, the reverse seems true. So many pundits are predicting war this summer that one starts to feel it would be more of a surprise if fighting didn't break out. Some of the predictions are so specific that people are attempting to plan their vacations around them, trying to gauge precisely how long the Gaza confrontation is likely to last, when the conflict with Syria will follow and spread inevitably to the Lebanon front, and whether it will all be over by early August or will extend right through the school summer holidays.
For all that Israel rightly feels the distress of its failure to wipe out Hizbullah last summer, the sense in the IDF is that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is not in the mood for another round just yet. Hizbullah is gradually regaining the strategic military capabilities it lost, most especially at the very start of the Second Lebanon War, but UNIFIL has reduced its freedom of action in the south. And with its eyes set firmly on gaining political power in Lebanon, it has no need, for now at least, to provoke more fighting.
Syria's calculations may be quite different, however. President Bashar Assad, in some assessments, may be tempted to try to emulate Hizbullah's derring-do, and to humiliate Israel with a limited strike into the Golan, putting his territorial demands at the top of the international agenda, or even to seek to recapture the entire Heights. Or he may be anticipating an American attack on Iran this summer, before it's too late to halt Teheran's nuclear program, and foresee an escalation that draws him into conflict with Israel.
Either way, Syria is preparing its forces in ways that are far from the norm of recent years, and producing and acquiring new missiles and other weaponry. Israeli units have been training on our side of the border to meet any threat. The danger of miscalculation is acute.
Five years after Operation Defensive Shield drastically handicapped terror preparations, meanwhile, the IDF's capacity to go pretty much anywhere, anytime, in the West Bank constitutes an ongoing deterrent. The terror groups in Gaza were never confronted with a parallel incursion, and even before disengagement they could afford to feel relatively secure in densely populated areas where IDF ground forces did not tread.
Gaza today is fragmenting into ever-greater anarchy - no longer a simple battle for primacy between Fatah and Hamas, but a Hamas dividing and redividing, with new extreme splinters, and a simultaneous resurgence of clan violence that in turn has prompted the upsurge in kidnappings. The BBC's Alan Johnston, for instance, is generally believed to be held by one such clan, whose demands are not ideological but, rather, financial.
Eight months after a bombardment and kidnappings prompted a war in the North, the government eschewed a similar response to the bombardment and attempted kidnapping on Independence Day in the South. But the parallels are all too plain: Weaponry is flowing into the Strip across a porous border, into the hands of violent extremists inspired by Iran. And while some of it is destined for use in the internecine violence, the primary enemy is Israel.
Among the reasons why Dan Halutz thought he could take a few days off last summer was his knowledge that the IDF was not in war mode, and his consequent assumption that the government would not require it to gear up for full-scale confrontation on short notice. The interim report of the Winograd Committee, due out on Monday, will attempt to determine responsibility for that and other miscalculations. But nobody is about to make the same mistake today: The IDF is not ready for a major incursion into Gaza, the government knows it, and unless there is a further upsurge in attacks from the Strip, with heavy casualties, the process of rehabilitating the army will take precedence.
THAT PROCESS is most definitely gathering pace. While Defense Minister Amir Peretz has essentially already acknowledged the imminent end of his miserable tenure, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is gearing up to try to put the best face on the worst that Winograd throws at him. In the IDF, however, Halutz's accelerated departure means that Gabi Ashkenazi has already been in the job for more than two months, and few corners of the military establishment have yet to feel the swish of the new broom.
It may be that any new commander saying little publicly while internally pledging a back to basics approach would have been rapturously received by the demoralized military hierarchy, but there is a palpable "thank goodness" sense among those around the new chief: Thank goodness we have someone here who doesn't over-philosophize. Thank goodness we have someone who hasn't jumped in and started firing people left and right. Thank goodness we have someone who knows this job from the inside. Unspoken but much pondered, too, is the question of why he didn't get the post last time, and whether things might have turned out rather better if he had.
Ashkenazi himself won't be drawn on this. He might have been, had he gone through with the series of pre-Independence Day interviews that had been scheduled for him by the IDF Spokesman's Office. But he canceled them. The decision was eminently sensible, given the brevity of his tenure to date. It was also characteristic of the evident mindset: Results first, talk later.
He has, however, told his own senior staff that he views last summer's conflict as having been "a missed opportunity." He also said, in his speech at the Western Wall ceremony for Israel's fallen soldiers this week, that he and his colleagues were busy "correcting the flaws" and "implementing the lessons learned" from the various investigations.
"Whenever the conflict is about territory - and the conflict with our neighbors is all about territory - air power cannot be decisive," Ashkenazi said in a 2002 interview. Given that mindset, it is not hard to imagine that an IDF under Ashkenazi would have fought very differently last summer, sending ground forces as far north as was needed to stop the relentless Katyusha fire. "We'll always need infantry and ground forces," the former Golani commander said in that same interview, "and to suggest otherwise is an extreme view."
Thoroughly evident in the brief weeks that Ashkenazi has been at the helm is the renewed emphasis on training - an urgent effort to redress a lamentable failure to prepare properly for conflict, as cruelly exposed in those 34 days of July and August 2006. It was a failure that stemmed not only from wrong-headedness at the top but, especially, from the strains of day-to-day terror battling for year upon recent year.
Now, combat troops are training. Reservists are training. Greater coordination is at a premium, as is simplified communication. Equipment needs are being taken seriously. Logistics are being overhauled.
Efforts are being made to ease the financial burdens on reservists, to ensure that soldiers from impoverished backgrounds have an easier time, to encourage the best and brightest to stay longer in uniform. Shortened terms of mandatory service? Forget it. This is truly a return both to basic principles and to a far warier Middle East outlook. Plainly, the new chief feels his army has a lot of catching up to do. Plainly, too, he takes seriously the likelihood of further conflict in the near future.
The poor stewardship last summer, Halutz's departure, Peretz's imminent farewell and Olmert's weakness combine to make the tough, no-frills Ashkenazi a particularly powerful chief of the General Staff at this particularly fraught juncture. One can imagine that any of his brief, carefully conceived utterances - were he to weigh in, for example, on the merits, or otherwise, of a prisoner exchange - would resonate powerfully amid cabinet debates.
And one suspects that politicians and military strategists far beyond our borders would have been listening carefully to that Remembrance Day speech. "There's nothing worse than war, nothing harder and nothing more painful," he said. "But if war is, heaven forbid, imposed upon us, we will not flinch from battle... While we have one hand extended in peace, the other is resting on the trigger to forestall any enemy. No one should seek to test our strength."