In the year since last summer’s war with Hezbollah, the Israeli military has been busy preparing for the next round of violence.
A number of commanders who proved to be incompetent, the chief of staff among them, have been fired. The military’s budget has been increased by $2 billion, with the extra money going toward refilling emergency depots with equipment and ammunition, as well as refurbishing logistics and medical systems. Above all, after years of neglect, units — especially large units of reservists — have started training again.
The man in charge of this huge effort is Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, the new chief of staff. He does not have the panache of his predecessor and, on the whole, has avoided the media. On the other hand, as a former director general of the defense ministry, he knows how to operate at the elevated levels where war, economics and politics meet.
Furthermore, as an infantryman he brings many qualifications to the job. More than most, he understands that commanders should spend most of their time in the field with their units rather than pushing paperwork in air-conditioned offices or putting on power-point displays for visitors. More than most, he also knows that those commanders are evaluated not in their ability to keep things neat and tidy but in making their units practice and practice again until they are well-oiled machines that can swing into action at a moment’s notice.
All these changes are encouraging, and Ashkenazi deserves credit for bringing them about. At the same time, it is not at all certain that the measures now being taken are indeed the right ones.
For one thing, little if anything has been done to fix Israel’s top-level decision-making machinery, which the Winograd commission determined to be neither well constructed nor capable of providing proper support to the prime minister.
It is true that in the year since the war with Hezbollah, Ehud Olmert has made a point of consulting with his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, on all important political-military matters. Far be it from me to question Livni’s very great wisdom; still, simply adding her to the group that makes the key decisions hardly addresses the criticisms raised by the Winograd commission. Suffice it to say, an Israeli equivalent to America’s National Security Council does not appear be on the horizon.
In its preparations and exercises, the Israeli military seems to be focusing heavily on fighting the Syrian army. Units as large as brigades are being put through their paces. Infantrymen using paintball, with similarly-equipped female soldiers playing “the enemy,” are taught how to fight in built-up areas. Tanks and armored personnel carriers drive about, raising clouds of dust.
It is as if Israel, instead of preparing for the future, is determined to fight the 1973 Yom Kippur War all over again. Indeed, the spectacle of anti-tank ditches being dug in the Golan Heights reinforces the sense of déjà vu.
While such preparations are going on, there still does not appear to be a solution to the problem of short-range unguided missiles. In 2006, Hezbollah fired several thousand of them; it was those missiles that caused the greatest damage among the population in Israel’s north. About 50 people were killed, hundreds were wounded and thousands had to be treated for shock. The day-to-day lives of perhaps a million people were disrupted. Economic activity in the region targeted by the rockets almost came to a halt, and one of Israel’s two main ports had to be shut down.
Regarding the longer-range missiles, opinions among Israeli experts are divided. Some see the operations of the Israeli air force against these rockets as the one bright spot in the military’s otherwise dismal performance last summer. Others dispute this, claiming that the air force’s much-touted performance was largely irrelevant and that Hezbollah succeeded in keeping up the same rate of fire from the war’s first day to its last.
Some of the debate is semantic, centering as it does on the definition of “short” and “long” range. Yet clearly nothing would be a greater mistake than to assume that just because it may have dealt with the threat in 2006, the air force will do so again in the future.
What makes the problem worse is the demonstrated weakness of Israel’s civil defense, a weakness first revealed in 1991. When Saddam Hussein launched his Scud missiles at Israel, responsibility for the field was shifted to the military. It set up a special division, known as Pikud HaOref, or the Home Command, for the purpose. One need only hear the disparaging nickname it has earned — Pikud HaOdef, or the Useless Command — to gauge its effectiveness.
In other words, a year after the war with Hezbollah, there is no indication that the Israeli military — or anybody else in the country, for that matter — knows how to ensure that the Israeli home front does not collapse under the hail of rockets that may soon rain down on it. And let’s not forget that Syria, unlike Hezbollah, has missiles capable of hitting just about anywhere in Israel, and some of those missiles are armed with chemical warheads.
Armies, like football teams, can only be as good as their opponents, especially in the long run. Perhaps the main lesson of last summer’s war was neither tactical nor strategic.
The conflict provided all too clear proof of what 20 years of “fighting” the Palestinians has done to the Israeli people — namely, weaken their once celebrated fighting spirit to the point where not a single unit that came under fire in Lebanon last year continued on its mission and where much of the military’s order of battle only existed on paper.
Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of the forthcoming “The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq” (Presidio Press).