Bracing for war while embracing its opposite

Smiles on the South Lawn, Sirens in Ashkelon

By Amir Oren

The sound of sirens, people rushing to find shelter, explosions, shrapnel, broken glass flying about, casualties – September 15 has been designated “Battle of Britain Day” to commemorate the time, during an early part of the Second World War, when England withstood a German aerial onslaught, a prelude for invasion also intended to hurt industry and morale, blocked by the Royal Air Force.

80 years on, on September 15, 2020, the sound of sirens, etc., was heard in the southern coastal plain cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, as HAMAS tried to ruin Israel’s celebration of normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, at the White House. The obvious aim was to force Israeli television news broadcasts to split their screens and show anxiety at home next to the applause in Washington.

It caused little damage, with only two civilians treated for wounds as the Iron Dome missiles intercepted rockets launched from Palestinian-held territory, and the Israel Defense Force retaliated as expected, but the message was clear to all – hey, guys, Donald and Bibi and the two Abdullahs from the Gulf, we’re still here, and nothing will be settled until we are satisfied. This was the opposite of a wake-up call. Rather, a late-night call warning that one cannot yet turn in for a restful, uninterrupted sleep.

Israeli military commanders were well aware of the reality on the ground, as distinct from the show anchored by President Trump for his re-election prospects. Not one enemy asset was taken off the order of battle facing Israel – no plane, tank, rocket or terror squad. All threats are still lurking, needing constant guard. So coincidentally with the Washington ceremony and the Gaza attack (Bahrain, notably, is only twice Gaza’s size and therefore the smallest independent Arab state), two of the IDF’s most prominent serving officers chose to publish their thoughts on directions and doctrines in a military affairs journal.

The two are the current Chief of the General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and his presumed successor in early 2023, Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi. Both of them have distinguished records, including  command of the elite 35th Paratroop Brigade and remarkable terms as Directors of Military Intelligence. Kochavi, 56, planned the next campaign against Hezbollah as chief of the Northern Command, while Halevi, almost 53 and a former Special Forces commanding officer of the secretive Sayeret Matkal, headed the Galillee Division focused on that threat. Well educated, both Kochavi and Halevi also graduated from American defense colleges.

Kochavi, who will be in charge for the next two-plus years but wants to set the IDF on an innovative course for at least another decade, wants to instill in his officers and men a simple notion – Israel has no time to waste on Wars of Attrition, where each side can claim victory according to its own calculus. Decisive victory, clear and swift and unequivocally effective, must be achieved within days. Israel’s technological edge over what Kochavi terms “terror armies” should be translated into multi-dimensional counter-attacks against Hezbollah’s, or in a Southern scenario HAMAS’, centers of gravity, such as its leadership, spearhead units and precision munitions aimed at Israeli Air Force bases and strategic infrastructure, with operations conducted on the ground, in the air, from the sea and in Cyber and the electronic spectrum.

To get from here to there, Kochavi prods his troops to break walls. He literally did it in the Palestinian inner city of Nablus, in 2002, when he bypassed booby-trapped doors to enter buildings less politely. Now he wants to do it to long-entrenched military bureaucracies, each protecting its turf. He is interested in outputs rather than inputs. All sources are welcome. If a time-critical target is identified, whoever is most available – a fighter plane, a tank, an unmanned aerial vehicle, an infantry platoon – is encouraged to engage it, without appealing to higher authority, whose response would come after the target disappeared underground or surrounded itself with human shields in a dense urban area.

Halevi, head of Southern Comnand facing Gaza until soon told whether he will be promoted to Kochavi’s deputy (if passed over, surprisingly, he will probably prefer to retire or possibly vie for an appointment to Mossad chief next summer), wrote about the important of defense. The IDF is geared defensively only on the strategic level – it is not built to invade, occupy and hold, though these may indeed be the by-products of political stalemates when wars end.

Due to its geographical and demographic constraints, Israel since the 1950’s braced itself to absorb a first blow at the border and push the invaders back into their territories, in the process destroying their military potential for years to come and threatening their capital-based regimes. It so little point in taking over Arab lands, from which it will be forced to retreat by international pressures and threats. As for pre-emption, it too would have to take into account regional and global realities.

Operationally, Israel saw little sense in spreading its forces – regular and reserve – along lines sure to be penetrated by terror squads looking for the weakest links in thin chains. As the British believed in the 1930’s, “the bomber will always get through”. The solution is thus diplomacy, deterrence – and building an offensive force to punish the invader if he is foolish enough to breach the line.

Halevi thinks this concept is in dire need for revision, when Israel’s immediate threats are no longer the Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian or Iraqi armies, and Iran is far away. The problem is one of perspective and victory is measured to a great though not exclusive extent by competing narratives. If HAMAS draws Israel into a 50-day exchange of blows, it can claim a win even if it lost hundreds of its men, had his facilities wiped out and sections of Gaza lie in ruins. If Hezbollah manages to capture, in video no less than on the ground, an Israeli outpost or settlement adjacent to the border, it has proven its mettle even if within hours it is beaten back.

To put it in even starker terms, in the next Lebanonn War (which is expected to be a Northern Front War, involving Syria as well), if Israel seizes 100 kilometers of Lebanese soil and Hezbolla only one kilometer south of the border, Israel will have lost. It is thus incumbent on the IDF to devote the same talent to prepare for defense, preventing any such breakout by its enemies, as it has channeled per Kochavi’s guidance to its doctrine of fire and maneuver on the attack. Meticulous planning and multi-dimensional exploitation of sensors and shooters will result in immediate responses, before the other side gets his prize (including the abduction of soldiers to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners).

This is theoretical stuff, not given to sunny shows and political peace parades. (The normalization between Israel and the two Gulf monarchies was not termed “Chemistry” or “literature”, because these are not the fields for which Trump wants his Nobel Prize). But it is a doze of reality, somber as the sound of sirens, and it is comforting to know that some military officers are analytical enough to think problems through and put their thoughts on paper. One may call it books, rather than boots, on the ground.