Published in The Jerusalem Post on October 12, 1997
Something is foul in our military/intelligence complex, and as a result Israel’s deterrent ability is eroding perilously.
Consider the litany of recent serious mishaps: two air force helicopters laden with crack troops collide in the Galilee; a Golani unit is caught in a fire maelstrom in Lebanon; an elite navy commando force is decimated by a Hizballah ambush; and now the botched Mossad operation against Hamas in Jordan. What are our enemies to think?
For a moment, let’s put aside the question of Netanyahu’s political misjudgment in running an assassination caper on Jordanian soil. Bibi can’t be blamed for the failure in execution in this case, nor for any of the above professional military screw-ups. It’s the operational flop, and the lessons that improperly might be drawn from it, that are my current concern.
Deterrence requires a strong, efficient, ruthless and successful military, with public backing. People have to fear your military capabilities and the reach of your intelligence services. Unfortunately, we find ourselves today moving in the opposite direction, weakened by an accumulation of errors and fumbles, by growing fatigue with the conflict – palpably expressed by the Israeli public, by confusion over political direction, and by a breakdown of consensus on the legitimate use of force.
Our political leaders don’t have much room to maneuver on the military battleground or diplomatic playing field when grass-roots movements agitate for unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, and concerned Jewish mothers practically follow their sons around the battlefield. It’s not easy for military officers to act decisively when every move is subject to a lawyers review, and each casualty is reason for a public commission of inquiry. It’s hard to fight terrorism when every operational step is revealed and critiqued in the newspapers, and brutally dissected by an opposition that’ll stop at almost nothing in order to topple your government.
Next, I fear, will be a public debate, with talk shows and public opinion polls, about the effectiveness and ethics of assassination or undercover units in our war against terrorism – one more detrimental result of the Mashal affair.
Our regional enemies read the studies that show considerable weakening in the profile of the Israeli army. Prof. Stuart Cohen of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, for example, has documented the erosion in motivation to serve in the IDF, and the reassessment of values in Israeli society that leads to a questioning of army honorability.
Arab intelligence chiefs can’t help but notice the growing reluctance on the part of our political elite to employ force. Our track record is poor – consider Lebanon in 1982 or in 1997, the failed attempt to quell the intifada, and our decision to stand by in the face of Iraqi missile attacks. We recognize the limits of force, which is, of course, a good thing. But it doesn’t make Israel appear overwhelmingly fearsome to enemies. Nor can Arab leaders fail to note the lack of experience at the senior IDF command level in managing large force formations. Indeed, no member of the General Staff has any experience with actual large-scale ground warfare — there’s been no such war since 1973.
Moreover, our political and military leadership is having difficulty adjusting at the psychological and operational level to the new regional situation of half war-half peace. We’re all a little unclear about the border lines between friend and enemy, especially when they overlap. Fighting the Hamas (enemy) in Jordan (friend), for example. The Mashal operation is evidence that our leaders haven’t internalized the shift from a state of war to contractual peace that has taken place in our relations with Jordan.
Take Mubarak’s Egypt or Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, as additional examples. Friends or foes? Do we conduct para-military intelligence operations in their yards? The lack of clarity with regard to these regional actors, both ‘partners’ in the peace process but often suspiciously tolerant of Israeli adversaries, can lead to a lack of confidence on our part, and to operational paralysis.
Prof. Efraim Inbar, also of the BESA Center, arues that the new situation is giving our leaders a bad case of dissonance. Deterrence of enemies or terrorists requires nastiness and unpredictability. Peacemaking, however, obliges reasonability and restraint. Balancing the two “is not something we have a lot of experience with”, Inbar says.
Undue caution becomes immobility, at the expense of our defense needs. This is especially true if the leadership gets pummeled with heaps of condemnation, hand-wringing and self-flagellation every time things don’t work out. Not to mention large doses of cynical and unrestrained attacks by the political opposition.
Time to ratchet down the ferocity of debate over responsibility for the Mashal assassination blunder. Israel’s deterrent power is in danger of being undermined.