All The Challenges of Israel

Israel, as one of its former prime ministers Ehud Barak once proclaimed, sees itself as a villa in the jungle. This statement, far from being politically correct, cost Barak some public criticism, but it remains somewhat poignant, as the events of the last two decades have taught us. Between the years 2000 and 2005, Israel faced one of the worse suicide bombing campaigns in history, during the second Palestinian intifada. One year later, as the Second Lebanon War broke out with Hezbollah, thousands of rockets were launched at Israel’s civilian population centers. And the last 8 years of turmoil in the Arab world brought the rise of extreme Sunni-Jihadist groups, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, to Israeli borders, while destabilizing the entire Middle East. Israel has dealt with all these recent, constantly evolving, challenges while maintaining its occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and facing growing censure from the international community because of it.

Ivo Saglietti, Lebanon, Beirut, Hezbollah neighborhood, 2008

Israel’s geographic location puts it at the vanguard, dealing with new terrorist and guerilla threats, which usually arrive later on the West’s doorstep. This reality has forced it to try and come up quickly with new operational concepts and solutions, in order to effectively deal with developing problems. At the height if the Second Intifada, The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and domestic Security Services (known by their Hebrew acronym SHABAK) figured a method to identify and thwart suicide attacks. Later on, facing a growing threat of rockets and missiles from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, Israel invented and produced a multi-layer rocket intercepting system, which achieved close to 90% success in the latest round of violence. And most recently, in 2015, when faced with a wave of “lone wolf” attacks, mostly by knife-carrying Palestinian teenagers, the Israeli authorities began to closely monitor Palestinian social media and make pre-emptive arrests of suspects according to inciting statements they posted.

These methods and solutions, some of them quite aggressive, did not make all of Israel’s problems go away. Some of the answers the Israelis have developed were only partial, while general instability in the region continues. The Middle East has turned into a massive area of uncertainty, which affects both Israel’s everyday challenges and its long-term planning. The most explosive arena is the Palestinian one, with growing chances for a massive military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in the next few months, as a result of the Strip’s deteriorating infrastructure and its almost unlivable daily conditions. But the greatest concern for Israeli decision makers has to do with the situation on the Northern border. The Syrian Civil war has practically ended in victory for the Assad regime and its supporters, the radical Shiite axis, led by Iran. This was not good news for Israel. The news got worse when thousands of Hezbollah fighters, who participated in the war, returned home to Lebanon and began implementing the lessons they learned there in order to improve their tactical standing against Israel.

Hezbollah isn’t actively searching for war with Israel

Israeli intelligence agencies assume that Hezbollah’s General Secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, isn’t actively searching for war with Israel, since he is perfectly aware of the possible price Lebanon would pay for such a decision. However, Hezbollah has also gained capabilities to inflict more damage on the Israeli home front. Considering that all of the last military campaigns in Gaza and in Lebanon began as a result of miscalculations and misunderstandings, and not calculated decisions, the danger of an unplanned war still looms. Russia’s military presence in Syria, which started in 2015 in order to save the Assad regime from defeat, further complicates the strategic situation in the North and limits Israel’s space for maneuvering.

This January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the army’s top brass with his vision for “IDF 2030”, a long term plan to improve the army’s abilities. Netanyahu mentioned five areas of top priority in which the army should invest: better offensive strike capabilities, cyber warfare, rocket-interceptive systems, improved defense for military sites and civilian communities from missiles and completion of the fences which are being built along Israeli borders. What the PM’s Top 5 significantly lacked was any mention of the army’s ground forces. Many of the army’s top generals have been complaining for some time that the IDF needs to urgently upgrade its ability to send forces to a deep ground maneuver inside enemy territory if that would be deemed necessary when war breaks. Last month, an armed brigade commander was even filmed complaining to the army’s general staff that his men and their tanks were not properly used during Israel’s last military campaigns. “We have a lot to offer, but you aren’t using us. This is clinical death”, he warned his superiors.

Netanyahu’s inclination to relay on “stand-off” capabilities (air force, missiles and artillery) is based on his understanding of an important development in Israeli society: it is less willing to accept military casualties, compared to the past. In all the latest campaigns in Gaza and Lebanon, the public expressed concerns over possible massive casualties, if the ground forces were indeed deployed deep inside enemy terrain. But there is a paradox here, of course: although the Israeli air force is considered one of the best in the world, it has so far failed in securing Israeli victory in similar recent campaigns. Assuming Israel’s enemies, whether Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza, will launch thousands of rockets toward Israeli population centers during war, the logical solution would be to send ground forces to try and put an end to this by taking control of significant enemy territory. But how will this be done if the ground forces are not equipped properly and not trained well enough in order to deal with the increasing challenge?

This dilemma will have to be settled soon. In early March, the IDF’s new Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Aviv Kochavy, convened his top officers to a three-day session titled “How to Win”. Unlike Netanyahu, Kochavy believes the army’s ground forces should receive major funds, in order to quickly improve their capabilities and adjust them to the current battlefield. Decisions will be taken – but this will happen, most likely, only after a new Israeli government will be established by June and after the Attorney General makes the final decision whether the Prime Minister would be indicted for various corruption scandals. Whatever the military urgency, political calculations usually come first.

Cover photo by Francesco Cito, Palestine, Hebron 1994