Project on Defense Alternatives

A Note on the State of Israel

by Lutz Unterseher
Universities of Osnabrueck and Muenster
Project on Defense Alternatives Guest Publication
November 2007

I. Introduction

This brief note, the result of but a momentary glimpse at the current situation, focuses on selected aspects of Israel's military security. It looks at the basic pattern of this country's recent war, against Hezbollah in 2006, and attempts to give a sketch of the problems affecting Israel's military position today. In addition to objective factors, the subjective side has been considered too: in the form of impressions gained in casual conversations with Israeli citizens. The note ends with tentative generalizations.

II. Recollection

In its short history since its struggle for independence, Israel fought five wars, and it won them all, but one - the last one. One was conducted on the strategic defensive, namely the October War of 1973, whereas four saw this country on the strategic offensive: Sinai 1956, "Six Days" 1967, Lebanon 1982, and Lebanon 2006.

With the campaign of 2006, which lasted less than five weeks in the months of July and August, Israel's leadership intended to crush the military arm of Hezbollah and to reduce this organization's influence on Lebanese politics to a minimum. Hezbollah, founded as a reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, is a regional Shi'ite movement of fundamentalist tendency with a military and a political wing. The activities of Hezbollah militants had become a substantial threat to the North of Israel: through random rocket attacks and occasional guerrilla operations into Galilee.

The abduction of a few Israeli soldiers in 2006 served as a welcome opportunity for the government in Jerusalem to launch a massive campaign intended to put Hezbollah out of business for a long time. The key to success was seen in a large-scale and well-aimed bombardment by tactical air power: against presumed Hezbollah strongholds and missile sites, but also against civilian infrastructure, such as bridges and roads. Targeting the latter was supposed to reach two objectives - interrupting Hezbollah's logistical flow and weakening the support of the local Muslim population for the Shi'ite fighters.

As it turned out, the deluge of fire from the air could neither break Hezbollah's will to resist nor neutralize its local civilian support and Israel then sent ground forces into Southern Lebanon. This offensive, conducted in the final phase of the IDF's (IDF: Israeli Defense Forces) assault, enjoyed a superiority of 6-10: 1 in military manpower. (With the IDF having committed 30,000 soldiers and Hezbollah, the sources vary, between 3,000 and 5,000 full-time fighters.) The Israeli ground operation was substantially supported by air power, while the other side had nothing of the kind.

This confrontation was 'asymmetrical' at a high level of technological sophistication. The invading forces consisted mainly of heavy mechanized forces: well-armored, modern tanks cum infantry mounted on 'mobile fortresses', often spearheaded by paratroopers operating commando-style, and supported by accurate fire from the air as well as from strong elements of artillery.

These forces soon got stuck in professionally prepared Hezbollah defenses: in a maze consisting of well-protected and carefully camouflaged battle stations and an interconnecting network of tunnels. This 'techno-guerrilla', which reminds us of similar concepts devised as alternatives to NATO's defense of Central Europe during the Cold War, sported no major mobile weapon systems, but relied on a mix of simple mortars and short-range guided missiles deployed in a decentralized mode (with dummy positions fooling the high-tech sensors of the invaders' reconnaissance).

When international pressure brought the war to an end, it meant that both sides were saved by the bell. In Israel there had been a continuous erosion of public support for its political and military leadership as Hezbollah had - by clever defensive tactics - managed to maintain a secure base for its frequent rocket attacks against the population of Galilee and even somewhat further to the South. But Hezbollah's high command felt too that it could not prolong the hostilities ad infinitum. There was not a shortage of arms, so generously supplied by Iran and Syria, but of trained personnel: as the attrition effect of the IDF's overwhelming firepower had killed up to 500 first-rate fighters, or between one tenth and one sixth of the total, and wounded many more.

III. Situation

Israel could not end the war of 2006 on genuinely favorable terms. Hezbollah continues to be a viable fighting force, with its stocks of arms filled up despite international border controls in Lebanon, and with replacements being trained to plug the gaps created by the IDF's onslaught. All this implies that a question mark has been put behind the very raison d'être of the State of Israel. Inside this country and in the relevant abroad there is, for well-known reasons, a broad consensus that Israel has to serve one prime purpose: namely to provide a safe haven for all Jews around the world who suffer persecution.

Since the war of 2006 this seems to be no longer guaranteed. During that war about half a million Israelis fled their homes in the country's North, trying to evade the rocket terror. This amounts to one tenth of Israel's population. Had the rockets flown considerably further to the South (Iran had supplied Hezbollah with appropriate systems, but not given permission to launch), one might have seen half the Israeli nation, or more, on the run: quite gruesome in a modern, motorized society.

What makes things worse is that Israel's government cum military leadership have failed to send clear signals of direction and competence - and that the country's armed forces appear to fall short of the professional standards they once met. In this context five observations are of particular interest:

  • Prime Minister Olmert has been unable to formulate a consistent political strategy aimed at overcoming Israel's security dilemma. In this respect, his competitors for power are not any better, however. The resulting impression that many representatives of the political class lack stature has been exacerbated by the fact that President of State Katzir had to step down because of grave allegations of misconduct.

  • Half a year after the war the IDF's chief of staff, Dan Halutz, was urged to resign. This exponent of the Air Force had convinced his Prime Minister, who feared a higher casualty rate of ground operations, that air power alone could bring Hezbollah onto its knees. Since it turned out that this concept was flawed, the Army faction among the IDF's top brass felt encouraged to call for a chief from their own ranks. Soon after the new man, Gabi Ashkenazy, had taken office, however, he challenged the primacy of political authority (by illegitimately criticizing a release of Palestinians from Israeli custody) which pointed to serious frictions in the relations between government and the IDF.

  • When the IDF's ground forces go into battle, they very much rely on trained reserves. Even for the ground offensive against Hezbollah, which by Israeli standards was not a large-scale operation, quite a few reservists had to be called up. The problem, though, was that these soldiers had not undergone proper refresher courses: as most of the time spent on reserve duty has been allocated to guard and patrol functions in the occupied territories. Israel's armed forces, especially those for ground operations, lack adequate manpower. This situation could only be improved if the military presence on the West Bank were substantially thinned out.

  • During the war of 2006 a high-tech Israeli corvette with stealth characteristics, while patrolling the coast of Southern Lebanon, was badly mauled by a Chinese-made anti-ship missile fired by a Hezbollah combat team. Given the vessel's advanced equipment, it should have been relatively easy to intercept that missile. According to an early NATO report this did not happen because relevant members of the ship's crew were not 'on station' and some of the sensors were turned off. It took the IDF's investigation more than a year to come to a similar conclusion and to initiate the sacking of the naval officer responsible.

  • Soon after the international naval force dedicated to prevent the flow of arms from the sea into Lebanon had taken up its duties, the lead ship, a German frigate, was subject of an attack by two Israeli fighter bombers. It was a mock attack, of course, which seemed to the very last moment quite serious, however. On the frigate all sensors were on, weapon systems and crew ready. The main reason why the Israelis survived was that the frigate's captain appeared to be fully aware of the political implications of such an incident. Despite ample evidence of this bizarre incident, it took the Israeli government months to indirectly acknowledge that it had actually occurred.

IV. Impression

The facts outlined above determining this nation's situation may incline foreign observers to pessimism. But what are the views of Israelis concerning their security? Opinions and fears recorded during a recent visit to the country may serve as orientations.

It should be noted, however, that this was a relatively brief family visit with limited chances to meet the man (or the woman) on the street. Relevant conversations took place with members of a fairly large family, and their neighbors, in several villages proud of their roots in the Jewish Labor Movement. (In other words, impressions were gathered in the milieu of the country's 'old élite'.) All partners in these exchanges are middle class and of Ashkenaz descent. Occupational positions include: agricultural consultancy, software engineering, ergonomic office design, development of medical instruments, real-estate assessment and other specialties. And there also was a recently retired rabbi among the interviewees. Interesting views and attitudes were plenty; five of which are particularly worth noting:

  1. It is a widely shared opinion that since the last war Israel has become militarily much less secure than before. All discussion partners consider it urgent to reverse the situation. But nearly all have little idea of how this could be achieved. (The government is not being regarded as a credible source of fresh proposals.)

  2. High-tech driven economic growth, with its perceived chances and benefits, appears to help relegate concerns about the nation's security. It is quite impressive to see how enthusiastic middle-class Israelis are, and how much effort they devote, when they plan or prepare for their next pleasure and shopping trip abroad. When asked why such investment of energy, the standard reply is that they live in a nation-sized ghetto (thereby indirectly betraying a sense of insecurity).

  3. To a varying degree, all interviewees have lost much faith in the capabilities of the Israeli armed forces. One of them, an 'old hand' with distinguished service as a paratrooper, went as far as to declare the IDF a veritable 'paper tiger'. The main reasons given to explain why the Israeli forces could no longer be considered a sufficiently reliable instrument of protection and power fall into five categories:

    • "Fish begin to stink from their heads." In other words, the top brass of the IDF is seen largely as incompetent, and the mechanism of selecting high-ranking officers as malfunctioning.

    • The upper command echelons are said to be too much under the influence of American-style high-tech aficionados, eroding the traditional fighting qualities still very much needed when the going gets tough.

    • More and more people of Sephardic background, from the less well-to-do half of the Israeli society, have made it up to the higher NCO ranks and even to the level of company and battalion commanders. Such an integration of 'another culture' into the forces' middle management is assumed to have negatively affected professionalism and esprit de corps.

    • The reservists, who play a key role in Israel's war preparations, are believed to be insufficiently trained. And it seems to be common knowledge that many reservists are being abused for routine duties in the occupied territories.

    • Frequent public attacks on military leaders along with an extremely controversial treatment of the nation's military policy in the media are perceived to demoralize and weaken the forces.

  4. In most discussions, Iran was named as the number one threat to Israel's security: partly because the mullah régime, which is considered increasingly belligerent, heavily invests in its country's military potential, but even more so because Iran is seen as a key actor in Lebanon, as pulling the strings controlling Hezbollah. Despite the fact that Iran is being viewed as potentially dangerous, no-one would whole-heartedly welcome an Israeli air strike against vital targets there (whether conducted as a solo effort or spearheading an American attack). Such an undertaking appears to be too risky as Iran enjoys direct leverage on Israel.

  5. Only one of the persons contacted, a younger generation professional, pleaded for a differentiated look at Hezbollah, the nightmarish foe. He presented himself well aware that this Muslim movement is, indeed, a double-winged animal. Interestingly he speculated that Hezbollah's military wing, having ended the war in glory, but also suffered a lot, may only be inclined to go for another armed clash if massively provoked. Therefore Israel should avoid all escalatory measures: thus also contributing to the gradual emancipation of Hezbollah's political wing, which in recent years has transformed itself into a resourceful and influential Lebanese party with little interest in taking incalculable risks.

V. Reflection

As Israel has become vulnerable to the potential threat from the North, and as there is no guarantee that in a next round the IDF could decisively deal with the forces of Hezbollah, it would appear risky to embark on a policy of provocation.

Hezbollah may be trying to avoid another armed clash: because the wounds received in the last one still hurt, because there are doubts whether the local population would support another, possibly even more apocalyptic encounter, and because the 'politicians' now have more influence than the 'fighters' in determining the movement's strategy.

Should Israel get involved in an attack on Iran, however, Hezbollah would have to perceive this as the ultimate provocation. Given the religious and political ties between Iran and the Shi'ites in Lebanon, even the most moderate Hezbollah leader would find it very problematic not to react militarily.

In military perspective Israel is not a solid, reliable rock anymore. Involving this country in adventurist aggression may backfire and turn it into a troublespot of unforeseeable dimensions.

These are rather pointed conclusions, which may distress some who ardently love that country and perceive things differently. The author's justification is that throughout his adult life, for almost half a century, he has maintained family-like ties with close and respected friends in Israel, and wishes for them as for the whole nation a future of security and peace.

Citation: Lutz Unterseher, A Note on the State of Israel, Project on Defense Alternatives Guest Publication. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, November 2007.

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