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The IDF and the Israeli Spirit

By Moshe Yaalon

The former Chief-of-Staff addresses the greatest threat facing the Jewish state.


 
Adapted from the Zalman C. Bernstein Memorial Lecture in Jewish Political Thought, hosted by the Shalem Center and delivered by the author in Jerusalem on January 19, 2006.
 
I know of no other country in the world whose existence as an independent, sovereign state has been called into question for so long and in so many different circles as has Israel’s. This continuous existential challenge will be the foremost problem with which Israel and the Israel Defense Forces are going to have to contend for the foreseeable future.
As Israel approaches its sixtieth anniversary, it can pride itself on the wonderful achievements that have established it as a regional power. But its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is still a matter of dispute.
As we begin our examination of the balance of power vis-à-vis the State of Israel, we are immediately struck by its physical dimensions: Israel’s population and area are very small, and its natural resources paltry—there is even a lack of water. And yet Israel is still a formidable regional power. How?
The key to Israel’s strength lies in its human resources. Human capital is the key, first of all, to the country’s strength in the humanities, culture, poetry, music, and theater; but also to its scientific and technological strength, especially evident in high-tech, medicine, physics, and aviation. In each of these areas, economic power derives not from natural resources but from human ones.
The same can be said for Israel’s military strength. Israel has developed a sophisticated military force, which rests on state-of-the art weapons that are themselves put at the disposal of top-flight soldiers and commanders. Today’s IDF uses the most advanced weaponry on earth, excelling in its precision, mobility, durability, design, intelligence collection, and information management. Superior intelligence enables the IDF to locate low-level targets such as terrorists, to pass on the information in real time to decision makers (whether a commanding officer, a pilot, or the chief of staff), and to hit the target in the most accurate and surgical way possible. These capabilities are translated into a substantial military force, and not only in the sphere of anti-terrorist warfare. Both the development of weapons and the ability to put them to use can be based only on a high level of human capital.
 
The nature of the threats confronting the IDF has, of course, changed over time. From the 1948 War of Independence through the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, the IDF faced the combined Arab armies in high-intensity conventional warfare. Indeed, the Yom Kippur War was the last conventional war initiated by the Arab states against Israel, the last war between armies.
The IDF’s victories in these wars forced Arab leaders to realize that their chances of defeating the IDF on the traditional battlefield were limited. Some of them, like Egypt and Jordan, turned to political agreements. Others chose to engage in forms of unconventional warfare: Sub-conventional warfare like terror, guerilla warfare, and attacks on civilian targets with primitive rockets; or super-conventional warfare, such as the development of medium- and long-range missiles or biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. The result is that while the IDF developed a powerful deterrent and a strong threat-detection capability with regard to conventional threats, in recent years the IDF has had to contend instead with Palestinian terror, Hezbollah guerillas, Qassam and Katyusha rockets, Iraqi Al-Hussein missiles (of which some forty were fired at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War), Syrian Scuds, Iranian Shihab missiles, as well as weapons of mass destruction in Syria and Iran, and the potential nuclear threat from Iran.
Today, Israel has had successes not only in dealing with conventional threats, but also, to some extent, in the area of weapons of mass destruction. Israel’s nuclear deterrent has stood the test of over fifty years. Even when facing defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, for instance, the Egyptians refrained from attacking Israel with chemical weapons, though they did not hesitate to use them in their 1962 war with Yemen. The fear of Israeli reprisal, moreover, is the only reasonable explanation for Saddam Hussein’s not attacking Israel with the chemical and biological warheads which were at his disposal during the 1991 Gulf War.
Indeed, the different threats that Israel and the IDF have confronted during the last few years have a single common denominator: Each attempts to avoid a head-on confrontation with the IDF, and each is aimed directly at Israel’s civilian population. In fact, a common element is shared by the lone suicide bomber planning to blow himself up in Jerusalem, the Katyusha missile aimed at Kiryat Shemona, the Qassam rocket aimed at Sderot, and the al-Hussein missiles that fell on Tel Aviv. Behind each of these attacks on heavily populated civilian centers there stands a mindset common to all of Israel’s enemies: They see Israelis as a war-weary “society of plenty,” seeking only a life of comfort and luxury, uncertain of themselves and of their inner convictions, led by people who do not believe in the nation’s willingness to fight.
The inescapable conclusion from this, however, is that Israel’s security no longer really depends on the number of planes, tanks, or artillery it has—though these will continue to act as indispensable deterrents at the level of conventional warfare—but on the strength of Israeli society, and its ability to face these threats without yielding.
The battles that Israel must now engage in, and will face for the foreseeable future, test not Israel’s military power but its civic resilience. The Arab nations began raising the question of Israel’s societal strength in the 1980s, when Israel was counting its casualties following its withdrawal from most of Lebanon in the wake of the 1982-1985 Operation Peace for Galilee. The discussion gathered strength after the May 1985 prisoner exchange in which three Israeli POWs were returned in exchange for the release of 1,150 terrorists. Later, our enemies were able to adduce further examples of Israeli weakness: In their telling, the Oslo accords were the result of the first Intifada (1987-1991); the Hebron withdrawal agreement was signed as a result of the 1996 “Temple Mount tunnel” riots; and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip followed unbearable Palestinian pressure in the so-called “second Intifada,” the terror campaign launched by the Palestinians in September 2000.
In the case of the most recent war, Israel could have made the opposite case. Israel’s determined stand against the wave of Palestinian terror, especially during the period between the Jenin operation of April 2002 and the announcement of the decision to withdraw from Gaza made in December 2003, severely undermined the Arabs’ hypothesis about the societal strength of Israel. With the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, however, Palestinian terror organizations such as Hamas and Fatah-Tanzim, which were ready to accept an unconditional cease-fire in the summer of 2003, interpreted the decision on unilateral withdrawal from Gaza as an Israeli “breakdown,” to be exploited as a “victory for the resistance.”
Israel’s current strategic security balance may thus be summed up as follows: A generally successful deterrent against conventional threats and super-conventional threats like weapons of mass destruction, combined with failure of deterrence on the sub-conventional level terror attacks and tactical missiles—which has resulted in an ongoing war of attrition against Israeli civilians.
 
What security threats will Israel confront in the future?
The acceptance of the State of Israel on the part of its neighbors as an independent Jewish state requires a long-term perspective on two fronts. On the one hand, Israeli society must remain steadfast over what will necessarily be a period of conflict spanning many years; on the other hand, Israel must always keep its eye on societal and moral changes that have to take place among its enemies before reconciliation can ever really occur. Such a process is by its nature lengthy, and can span over one or more generations.


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