The IDF as never seen before

A new book produced an enlightening examination of the Israel Defense Forces, embedded in a collage of breathtaking photos.

The phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” was coined for books like “Snapshot: The IDF as Never Seen Before.” Its large, photo-packed, album-like format made me expect a public relations depiction of Israel’s crowning glory, the IDF.
But several sentences in, it became apparent this was something totally different.
Journalist and commentator Yoav Limor and photojournalist Ziv Koren teamed up to produce an enlightening examination of the Israel Defense Forces, embedded in a collage of breathtaking photos.
The author combines two seemingly contradicting approaches. He is obviously no outside, objective reporter, but an Israeli with intimate knowledge of the IDF as well as a deep appreciation and love for it. But at the same time, he is honest, willing to expose issues and bitterly critical.
The author delves into the symbiosis between Israelis and the IDF, with its positive as well as negative influences. The issue of blurring the lines between “soldiers” and “sons” is explained as a vulnerability, with an impact on resilience and strategic posture.
He does not merely point to this distorted phraseology as a cultural phenomenon but claims it is deliberately used in order to promote political agendas, such as the “Four Mothers” organization’s efforts during the First Lebanon War and the campaign to release Gilad Shalit.
The author wishes the Israeli public would mature and learn to separate “between logic and emotion.” I couldn’t agree more.
No issue is too sensitive to raise, such as the current decline in motivation to serve in combat units following a spike after the last campaign in Gaza, or a call to cease reliance on external donations to IDF units.
The author tackles the issue of the defense budget and the need to demonstrate to an ever-growing critical public that our resources are wisely utilized. Published several months ago, the call to argue over the logic of defense cuts came before recent declarations by the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister that they plan a multi-year increase in the defense budget.
A key topic in the book may seem odd if you are not familiar with Israel: “An army that does not know what is expected of it will not be able to do its job.”
This statement hits the nail on the head, as “Israel has no clear strategic plan.” Simply put, the Israeli government has not laid out its long-term vision and goals. Lacking guidance, subordinate agencies have no way of knowing what is expected of them. This anomaly leads to independent interpretations of the government’s intent, such as the groundbreaking “IDF Strategy,” published by Chief of General Staff Gadi Eizenkot.
I believe that the result, among other things, is the ability of politicians to shirk responsibility and avoid accountability when things go south, as was clearly and wrongfully demonstrated after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
The author sheds light on an inverted reality, where the IDF and other security organizations seem to assume the role of the “responsible adult” while politicians “are mostly busy with inciting emotions.” A harsh criticism of Israel’s political leadership, but sadly to the point.
As with the defense budget, here too the book preceded a recent announcement by Netanyahu of a new strategic concept – a rare occurrence in Israel. The problem is that just as the defense budget increase seems more like an election PR stunt than a well thought out plan, the virtues of this new, undisclosed strategic directive (formulated without even engaging all relevant agencies) is unclear. Therefore the author’s argument that “it would be wise for Israel to formulate an updated concept of defense” is still valid.
The chapter on counterterrorism opens with the amazing story of how Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, was saved by an Israeli officer, and the incident in Hebron, where an Israeli soldier shot and killed a terrorist after he had been neutralized and lay helpless on the ground. The author uses these cases to explain how morals and ethics play such a dramatic role in the IDF. It is refreshing to see such a frank description of this issue, as both an asset and vulnerability.
“Israel can overcome terrorism,” states the author, and provides supporting data. He then explains the reasons for this: first, the Security Fence (mistakenly called “the Separation Fence”); second, Palestinian counterterrorism efforts that promote their own interests; and third, the coordinated efforts of Israeli security agencies, which are able to curtail and mitigate the impact of terrorism.
The key to success, claims the author, is the “circle of prevention” enabled by superior information that leads to thwarting terror attacks in their early planning stages. He explains the transition from coordinated, organizational terror attacks to “lone wolf” attacks, and the differences between their potential impact and the likelihood of their being thwarted.
An interesting segment deals with the motivation for terror attacks. The author reveals that despite an image of national struggle, “small personal dramas” mostly lead individuals to seek attention or financial compensation by committing terror attacks. In what might be considered a controversial statement, the author suggests that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, unlike Yasser Arafat, “is not interested in terror attacks and avoids supporting them,” and that he has replaced armed struggle with a diplomatic one. Still, the author addresses the troubling reality that Palestinian school curricula, as well as media content, reek of incitement to violence.
The author points to the fact that many Palestinians enter Israel daily with work permits with virtually zero security risk. Apparently people who work and bring home salaries are less likely to be involved in terrorism. Although he stresses this paradigm of prosperity leading to stability, the author by no means claims that this may numb national aspirations. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be resolved by offering people jobs. We must give the Palestinians more credit than that.
As the author leaves no stone unturned, he accuses Israeli authorities of neglecting to enforce the illegal presence of Palestinian workers in Israel, and even predicts a “major terror attack” as a consequence. Another important prediction is the pivotal role of the Temple Mount as a potential spark, which may ignite passionate outbursts, with no correlation to actual developments (as Israel is extremely careful to state and makes it very clear that no change is planned in the status quo).
A further significant topic, nicely detailed, is the broad efforts exerted by all security agencies, led by the Shin Bet, Israel Security Agency (ISA), to thwart terrorist attacks. The author rightly points to the fact that most activities are performed in cyberspace, but he stops short of explaining how this is actually done. I would only mention that it is no longer just a matter of analysts sifting through a sea of data, but advanced artificial intelligence, biometrics and other mind-boggling technology.
In a chapter on borders, the author sheds light on a relatively new concept in Israel’s defense – fortifying Israel’s boundaries, from the use of robust physical obstacles with an array of technological sensors to designated personnel trained to detect, alert and respond to threats.
I found it refreshing to finally see a clear depiction of how the IDF has rearranged its priorities and forces. The author peels away unfounded assumptions, political agenda and political correctness, and lays out the fundamental considerations behind current force build-up and force deployment. For instance, mixed gender border-protection battalions free physically able men for first-line, infantry brigades, and enable them to focus more on training for war.
Among his many predictions and recommendations, the author suggests we eventually establish a designated law enforcement force in Judea and Samaria, instead of deploying young combat soldiers. Regardless of how feasible this specific recommendation is, it is refreshing to encounter an open-minded discussion on the fundamental issues at hand.
Relating to the Lebanese arena, the author points to what he views as a mistake in our perception – Hezbollah is not a puppet of Iran, but first and foremost a Lebanese organization. The reader will find a clear description of the transformation Hezbollah has undergone, with its positive and negative ramifications. He also pretty well outlines the next war, from Hezbollah’s tactics and “surprises” to Israel’s defense and responses, including the evacuation of civilians from the region – a significant change in Israeli doctrine.
When discussing a possible war with Hezbollah, the author uses the words “harsh” and even “devastating.”
Border by border, front by front, the author analyzes both the current situation and trends. The common denominator is obvious – fences, walls, barriers and a lot of technology. The enemy amasses capabilities, which when proved threatening are countered by Israeli technology. The Iron Dome and other active defense systems provide multilayer defense from standoff, ballistic munitions. Fences and walls, above ground and underground, erode and negate direct penetration.
Here, too, the author openly provides us with a balancing factor – technological defense measures cost vastly more than the threats they counter.
The book nicely describes another critical component of Israel’s national security in recent years – the campaign between the wars (the book uses the term “battle” instead of “campaign”).
Gone are the days when actions against Hezbollah assets in Syria were attributed to the IDF only by “foreign sources.” Israeli officials and IDF commanders have been openly declaring responsibility for multiple strikes. Even the elimination of the Syrian nuclear facility was only recently “outed” (still referenced to “foreign sources” in the book).
The focus of this persistent campaign is to thwart emerging threats instead of waiting to cope with their amassed effect during an all-out war. The targets are obviously those, which are considered “game changers” or those which can “tip the balance.”
Official declarations reveal that Israel is determined to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria, as well as prevent strategic munitions from reaching Hezbollah.
The author explains why vagueness is useful in preventing retaliation and escalation to war. On the other hand, it is clear that the Israeli leadership is currently using exposure as a means of deterrence.
The jury is out as to the overall effect of this new trend.
I believe that the author’s statement that “Israel wages the shadow war on its own” is somewhat of an exaggeration. With all our abilities and resolve, international collaboration must also be at play and is key to success (the author himself relates to this, when discussing alleged attacks on Egyptian soil).
The author claims that the chapter on special forces is a one-of-a-kind disclosure. Having intimate experience with these units, I can attest that this is no exaggeration.
Israel’s first-tier special operations units are introduced – from when, why and how they were inaugurated, to how they select recruits and what their mission focus is. Fans of special-ops will love this chapter both for the text and exquisite photographs.
I especially liked the way the author captured the unique cultural traits of special operations, such as the highly skilled and equipped operators and the detailed planning and “modelling” (i.e. full scale “dress rehearsals” with physical mock-ups of the target).
An interesting anecdote is the longtime competition between Yamam (Israel Border Police counterterrorism SWAT team) and Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit). It finally seems to be understood that Yamam is vastly superior when it comes to hostage rescue scenarios. It’s about time that units be deployed according to expertise, not politics and ego.
The “softer” aspects of the IDF are perceptively detailed in a designated chapter, from humanitarian missions around the world to Operation Good Neighbor (which recently came to an end). Attention is also given to one of the IDF’s missions aimed inwardly at Israeli society – “Havat Hashomer,” which recruits and rehabilitates people who have been expelled from educational institutions.
One of the most controversial issues in Israel in recent years has been the integration of women in combat roles in the IDF. The author describes how this evolved, from pioneer Alice Miller’s petition to the Supreme Court to join the Air Force Academy until today.
The problem with public debate of this matter is that it is not based on facts, but on narratives and crusades with agendas. It is not uncommon to hear a heightened debate between two Israelis, with one side vigorously claiming that “there is no difference whatsoever between men and women.” This is, of course, factually wrong, but today’s politically correct environment challenges fact-based debate. The IDF itself contributes to this by vigorously campaigning for women’s integration, without sharing all the data and considerations with the public.
The author navigates these troubled waters in one of the most honest and concise approaches I have seen. Despite one paragraph where he claims that “some units still categorically reject women,” making it sound as if only outright chauvinism is at play, he accurately and even boldly describes all aspects, including how the IDF manages its constraints and considerations.
Perhaps the IDF should adapt this text, or at least learn from the author how to transparently engage the public.
An important segment in the book deals with perception and expectation management. The author explains why Israeli society must recalibrate its fundamental narrative of fighting for its very existence, when Israel is no longer existentially threatened.
He talks about the evolvement of warfare and “the need to win wars that are essentially unwinnable,” while Israelis long for the days of decisive victories in conventional battles.
Israeli leadership is critically called upon by the author to lead the country’s defense efforts in a way which “influences its surroundings more than it is influenced by them.”
While poking fun at the “armchair generals” and “eight million chiefs of staff,” the author presents the main wartime dilemmas, such as the focus of our enemies on targeting the home front, and the timing and extent of land maneuvers.
The author dissects every holy cow in the herd, including the concept of the “people’s army.” We like to explain that due to mandatory service, all Israelis enlist at 18. But, as the author points out, “this definition is invalid,” for only about half of eligible enlistees are actually drafted. He goes on to predict a dismal future where a small portion of “suckers” carry the burden for the rest, a phenomenon he calls a “breakdown of the people’s army.”
The author addresses the lack of ultra-Orthodox integration, and how we reached the current situation where one in every five eligible Israeli men declare themselves full-time Torah scholars, excluding them from the ranks of the IDF. Looking ahead, he lays out the numbers and proportions and it only gets worse.
As he does throughout the book, the author is not satisfied only with bleak descriptions and predictions, but offers practical remedies to be considered and developed, such as mandatory civil service for all, and retracting special service programs.
The final chapter deals with fascinating components of Israel’s overwhelming hi-tech supremacy, but also depicts our low-tech shortcomings, a gap the author describes as “incomprehensible.”
Yes, I found several provincial biases (what I call the “only in Israel” fallacy) and naïve expressions of national pride (“Merkava is the best tank in the world”), but, all in all, Limor has written one of the best essays I have ever read about the IDF.
Koren’s brilliant photographs certainly justify the book’s title. Many of them command the exclamation “how on earth did he capture that?” and the answer is obviously a mix of great talent and unparalleled access.
The book is certainly a “Snapshot” – a brilliant, vivid, exposed, and stirring image – not only of the Israel Defense Forces, but of the State of Israel and Israeli society.
The writer is a cross-cultural strategist.