Into the Fray: Redefining (failure as) victory

One can only hope that the stiffening of national resolve the public seems to be displaying in its choice of candidates for the next Knesset, will result in a new political atmosphere that will permit the IDF to once again become the formidable and feared fighting apparatus it once was.

IDF tank patrols Golan Heights 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman Unit)
IDF tank patrols Golan Heights 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman Unit)
Post-modern notions have blurred the strategic clarity of Israel’s political leadership and its defense and foreign affairs establishment. [T]he outcome of the 2006 [Lebanon] war makes the next round inevitable – Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies
Even if Israel can very capably defend lacks the will to make the protracted efforts to defeat its enemies.... No one at the upper echelons of Israel’s political life articulates the imperative for victory – Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum
The IDF either lost ability to or forgot how to close with and destroy a determined enemy.... When a nation’s infantry cannot close the last 100 meters and kill a determined foe a country is in trouble – Col. (ret.) Kevin Benson, former director, the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies.
Last week, Yaakov Lappin, who covers military and security affairs for The Jerusalem Post, published an article which should give cause for grave alarm to anyone concerned with Israel’s security.
The reason the article, titled “Israel redefines victory in the new Middle East,” is so disturbing is that it appears to indicate that Israel’s defense establishment has learned little from the string of military failures – or at least, non-successes – incurred by the IDF over the better part of a decade.
Fossilized thought process?
As Lappin is a well-informed, responsible journalist, there seems little reason to question the credibility of his account of the prevailing mindset of the senior echelons charged with formulating the nation’s military doctrine.
For what emerges is a dismal picture of fossilized thinking – a kind of mental rigor mortis – reflecting an unawareness of, or a refusal to acknowledge, the fact that the conceptual templates and perceptual frameworks being employed to formulate Israel’s operational procedures have precipitated a series of grossly unsatisfactory outcomes in virtually all the IDF’s major military undertakings since the beginning of this century.
Indeed, if one examines the realities that developed in the wake of all these engagements, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Israel’s adversaries emerged with their strategic positions perceptibly enhanced – or at least, with having wrung important benefits for themselves and/or their constituencies.
Time and again, Israel’s leaders have been unable to translate operational success into political-strategic advantage.
Quite the opposite. Each time, after the guns fell silent, the other side has gained in strength and/or prestige, and Israel has been pressed into making concessions regarding the conditions that prevailed in the status quo ante.
Catalogue of counterproductive campaigns
A brief survey of the aftermaths of the IDF’s more significant campaigns/operations in recent years reveals a depressing picture of counterproductive martial endeavor, despite frequent displays of impressive intelligence gathering, pinpoint targeting and awesome destructive power.
Thus, the 2006 Second Lebanon War paved the way for the ascent of Hezbollah.
Despite the massive devastation inflicted on Lebanon, the inconclusive end to the fighting left Hezbollah in a distinctly enhanced position both in terms of refurbished armaments and political power. Indeed, any future threat to its status would seem more likely to arise from the outcome of the civil war in Syria and the fate of the movement’s hitherto sponsor, Bashar Assad, rather than any peril it might face from the IDF.
Similarly, the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which, although conducted with a greater level of professionalism than the Lebanon fiasco, still left Hamas entrenched in power and spoiling for a fight, after defying the might of the IDF for almost a month – and, as was to be demonstrated a few years later, with greatly enhanced capabilities militarily and international stature politically.
Even the interception of the 2010 Gaza flotilla, which was intended to enforce the blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, resulted in the blockade being eased and restrictions being lifted.
Likewise, the November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense demonstrated that Hamas had not been deterred by Operation Cast Lead, but merely forced to regroup and re-arm, with a greatly improved array of weaponry. The premature curtailing of the fighting by Israel not only left the organization in a position to claim its defiant resistance victorious, but with its international standing considerably upgraded, with visits by high-level international figures and pledges of generous financial aid.
Worse, the Egyptian brokered cease-fire understanding left Hamas with considerable concessions, including the lifting of additional restrictions on imports, and with undertakings by Israel to refrain from various military activities it had carried out in the past.
Responding with resignation and rhetoric
Alas, judging from Lappin’s account of the mentality that dominates the formulation of Israel’s security doctrine, this abysmal array of results is not difficult to understand. Indeed, some might contend that they were largely inevitable. For it appears that the nation’s policy-makers have resolved to respond to the realities of the New Middle East with a regrettable combination of resignation and rhetoric.
Lappin begins his article with the following observation: “Israel is redefining its concept of military victory in a Middle East dominated by terrorist organizations turned quasi-state actors.”
However, to some it may appear that the notion of “victory” (at least as it is understood in common English-language usage) has been expunged from Israeli strategic thinking, both as an admissible cognitive entity and as an attainable, even desirable, military goal.
According to Lappin: “Victory was seen by the Israel Defense Forces as a clear-cut event, which ended when the enemy raised a white flag.”
He continues: “Today, however, the IDF considers this thinking out of date in the 21st-century battle arenas of the region, where a terror organization such as Hamas will continue firing rockets into Israel right up until the last day of a conflict, and claim victory despite absorbing the majority of damages and casualties.”
Lappin also writes that Israel’s strategic planners have renounced the notion of seizing territory from which attacks are launched against Israel – or at least prescribe refraining from it as far as possible: “Today, the goal of seizing control of the enemy’s turf is seen as a short-term initiative, a highly unpopular development among strategic planners, who now argue that this should be avoided wherever possible.”
Redefining deterrence
It would seem that “victory” is not the only concept that is undergoing a “semantic overhaul.” So it would seem is the notion of “deterrence.”
Lappin: “Deterrence, rather than clearcut conquest or triumph over the enemy, has formed the goal of Israel’s last three conflicts: the Second Lebanon War of 2006; Operation Cast Lead against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in 2009 and Operation Pillar of Defense against the same entities in Gaza in November.”
As he goes on to clarify, however: “...deterrence-based military achievements are temporary by nature. At some point, deterrence erodes away, and must be reestablished all over again. This is what happened in Gaza last month. And the IDF has been preparing for a fresh confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which today is armed with at least 50,000 rockets and missiles, many of them... that can strike deep inside Israel.”
This suggests a radical departure from the usual significance ascribed to both “deterrence” and to the means employed to attain it.
For as Lappin explains: “The IDF’s evolving new [deterrence-rather-than-triumph-based] doctrine involves short spells of fighting, in which the IDF hits the other side...hard enough to ensure that the Israeli homefront will enjoy prolonged calm after the fighting ends.”
Deterrence redefined (cont.)
Clearly, in the new IDF jargon, “deterrence” no longer entails engendering the ongoing perception in the mind of potential adversaries that aggression will have unacceptable consequences, but merely inducing short periods of respite until the consequences are no longer so perceived.
This is a formula for a never-ending tit-for-tat cycle of attacks and counterattacks, in which the aggressor can persist in attrition, secure in knowledge that the IDF will eschew measures aimed at “clear-cut conquest or triumph over the enemy.”
In other words, whatever the damage inflicted on the environs, the enemy can be sure of being left able to fight another day.
But perhaps what is even graver is that measures to achieve an effective deterrent posture are no longer focused on ensuring that the enemy’s will-to-fight is broken – as in the case with Germany and Japan after World War II. Instead, the virtually explicitly stated goal today is to coerce the enemy into a temporary truce, which merely forces it to regroup and redeploy while allowing it to rearm and rebuild, and thus to resume hostilities at a later stage, with its appetite to engage undiminished.
As Israel Harel recently remarked in Haaretz in a scathing rebuke of the prevailing ethos in the IDF: “This is why terrorists can and will fire thousands of rockets at Israel, and this is what will lead us to the next intifada.”
Remilitarizing the IDF
In his “How Israel Bungled the Second Lebanon War” in Middle East Quarterly, Efriam Inbar makes an astute diagnosis of the malaise: “... many IDF leaders believed that minimal force if not diplomacy would suffice to minimize the threat.”
To make the point, he cites then-chief of the Northern Command, Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam, who declared: “There is nothing that can be solved just by the military... There is a need for a diplomatic solution,” adding, “I do not believe that anyone wants to go back into Lebanon.”
This is precisely the point.
Cowered by the tyranny of political correctness, Israel has abandoned the pursuit of military imperatives. The dread of being bogged down in a “quagmire” of a land operation has ensnared it in the quicksand of impotence, leading to a string of strategic failures that have left its adversaries stronger than they were before Israeli action.
Yes, Israel’s overall national strategy must incorporate a judicious mixture of military and diplomatic endeavor. But diplomatic endeavor must be geared to facilitating the pursuit of that strategy’s objectives, not to undermining it –and certainly cannot become a determinant of those objectives, nor a factor that dictates the measures to achieve them.
The IDF needs to remilitarize its thinking, readopt military methods/methodologies, and reinstate military objectives.
It needs to refocus on “military solutions” and leave the diplomatic ones to the diplomats.
Reinstating the “white flag” objective
According to Lappin, the architects of Israel’s defense strategy have essentially renounced any endeavor to coerce the enemy to raise a white flag of surrender.
This is a grave error rooted more in the prevailing mood in the political milieu rather than in military realities in the field.
True, some might protest with a degree of justification, the idea of a comprehensive victory over the Arab world is a dangerous, unattainable delusion. Perhaps – but imposing surrender on the enemy in specific theaters of military engagement is not.
Thus, as Inbar observes, the IDF definitely could have “eviscerat[ed] Hezbollah’s ability to harm Israel.”
So surrender could have been imposed on Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006; it could have been imposed on Hamas in Gaza in 2008. It can and must be imposed on Hamas today.
The missing ingredient was not martial prowess of the IDF, nor the motivation of its warriors. The lack of political will was the missing ingredient required for a more successful outcome.
In the next encounter – regrettably made inevitable by the policies now adopted – Israel’s Arab adversaries, whether non-states, quasi-states or states, must be crushed by overwhelming force, from the land, sea and air. Their leaders must be seized or slain. They must be forced to admit defeat – and indeed forced to hoist a white flag as an unambiguous acknowledgment of surrender.The coming elections
This is far from an exhaustive critique of the problem Lappin sets out in his article, and much remains to be addressed that, sadly, the constraints of space does not permit.
But given that the sources of the malaise afflicting Israel’s military planners are dominantly political, one can only hope that the stiffening of national resolve the public seems to be displaying in its choice of candidates for the next Knesset, will result in a new political atmosphere that will permit the IDF to once again become the formidable and feared fighting apparatus it once was – free of the impediments which currently curtail its operational alternatives, endanger the country it is assigned to defend and imperil the citizens it is charged to protect.Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.