Israel’s Principles: Reader Reactions

The last JINSA Report noted that Israel finds its two formerly immutable defense principles undermined and is now fighting a war of attrition inside its borders with its civilians under attack. In response, readers asked two important questions.

The last JINSA Report noted that Israel finds its two formerly immutable defense principles undermined and is now fighting a war of attrition inside its borders with its civilians under attack. In response, readers asked two important questions.

Q: I was in Sderot two week ago. [There is tension there] but not in Jerusalem. I believe therein lies the problem. The missiles are at an “acceptable” level. There are no riots in the street… Life goes on, the economy is booming and everything is taken in stride. Even in Sderot there are no mass demonstrations against the government! Why?

JINSA: In February, JINSA participated in a seminar with the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel. There, an Israeli military analyst made the point that when a free population has a relatively low birth rate and a draft army, it is generally unwilling to go to war and the government has to take that into account. Therefore, it will hesitate to start or respond to hostilities. Think of Western Europe, where there was conscription until the demise of the Soviet Union, and pacifism ruled. (It still rules; there is little for which most Europeans would go to war.)

You wrote, “The missiles are at an acceptable level.” That was the point made by our military guests at the JINSA Board Meeting. “No one wants to reoccupy Gaza; the casualties will be very heavy.” An Israeli journalist wrote in a note to JINSA, “Anything is better than doing [reserve duty] in Gaza again.” If that is the public attitude – anything is better than reserves in Gaza – there will be no public demand to halt the missiles. In that sense, the Israeli government is currently consonant with public will.

The withdrawal from Gaza, like the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, was popular at first because the Israeli public did not see the purpose of risking the lives of IDF soldiers in either place. There is a certain level of “stiff upper lip” among Israelis – a willingness to tolerate attacks for a period of time to avoid a larger scale war that would involve larger numbers of military casualties. But to the extent that civilians take casualties to protect the military, the normal relationship between the people and its army is inverted. The IDF will not be willing to let that continue indefinitely, which accounts for the public statements by military officers that there will be an incursion into Gaza.

The Palestinians assumed the Israeli public would crumble under the onslaught of the so-called second intifada. They were wrong. The people proved their ability to withstand terrorism and then supported IDF operations in Jenin after the Passover Seder bombing.

Hezbollah broke the “agreement” for quiet by kidnapping two soldiers and killing seven others in 2006. The government had to respond and the public was solidly behind it – even and especially – while rockets were falling on Haifa. Hezbollah was surprised and Israel’s deterrent at least temporarily restored. Public attitudes toward the Olmert government only changed after the last bloody ground action, close to an expected ceasefire.

One might assume that the Ashkelon bombing will bring the Israeli public closer to the limits of its tolerance for missiles from Gaza, and the IDF closer to its traditional role as protector of the homeland and the civilian population.

Q: The IDF can enter the Gaza (or a part of it) as it entered Jenin (in 2002). But after that, what happens? Can the IDF replicate (or reasonably substitute for) the post-cleanout posture it has outside Jenin with networks of intelligence inside? What will happen inside Gaza after a “cleaning out”?

JINSA: The question is not what will “happen” in Gaza, but what Israel intends to accomplish in Gaza if it sends the IDF in. This is a familiar refrain for JINSA Report readers – the civilian leadership cannot tell the military to “do something” somewhere; it has to tell the military what it wants done. The military then has to have the plan, the capability and the resources to achieve the goal. And it has to execute. If the first plan doesn’t get you to your end game, you have to change or fix the plan. But you cannot change the end game without military and political repercussions.

For historical precedent, consider WWII or our own Civil War – the end games of both were unconditional surrender (of the Axis and of the South to keep the Union whole). Both had major flaws in planning and were disasters at the outset, resulting in enormous casualties. Strategies and generals were changed, but the goal never moved.* Iraq is an example of what happens when the goal does move. If deposing Saddam was the end game, the U.S. military did a magnificent job and could have been withdrawn in the summer of 2003. But when the civilian leadership moved into nation building, the military did not have the resources in place for the conflict that ensued. After substantial difficulties, a change in plan and generals was followed by tremendous success toward the new goal of a stable Iraq with a government responsive to the people.

“What is Israel’s goal in Gaza?” is the question.

JINSA has previously suggested that the United States withdraw its support for an independent Palestinian state because that support was predicated on changes the Palestinian leadership has refused to make. (That is their right, but then it is our right to withdraw support.) We could envision working toward the emancipation of Gaza as a city-state – but it would require the uprooting of Hamas from Gaza. Israeli military officials have already said that an Iranian/Hamas outpost in Gaza is unacceptable, so we assume there is an understanding in the IDF of the military cost of removing it. If that is the course the Israeli government chooses, we would hope there is a corresponding political plan. If the goal is only to drive Hamas underground for a time, it should be acknowledged that the IDF has been given a limited mission that is a holding measure, not a fix.

The real key to the Winograd Commission Report was the understanding that the Israeli government had been presented with two military options for Lebanon, each having a different end game and each requiring different military resources. The government entered Lebanon without deciding which it was pursuing, pursued both and failed at both.

That is unlikely to happen again.

* Essential summer reading on this point: the first two books of Rick Atkinson’s WWII “Liberation Trilogy,” An Army at Dawn and The Day of the Battle.