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January 19, 2017 3:54 pm

Generals, Gimmicks and Gobbledygook

avatar by Martin Sherman

Email a copy of "Generals, Gimmicks and Gobbledygook" to a friend
An IDF soldier moves forward during a training exercise. Photo: IDF via Wikimedia Commons.

An IDF soldier moves forward during a training exercise. Photo: IDF via Wikimedia Commons.

“[After Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death] the ability of the Arabs to coordinate their political and military activities has diminished. Even previously this ability was not great – now it is even less. There is no need to call up our forces, even when threats are made and enemy forces are deployed along the [post-1967] cease-fire lines. Before the Six-Day War, every Egyptian troop movement into Sinai compelled Israel to call up reserves on a significant scale. Now, there is no need for such a call-up as long as Israel’s lines of defense are in place along the Suez Canal…Israel’s military strength is sufficient to prevent the opposing side from attaining any military objective and political realities prevailing between the superpowers is not conducive to a renewal of fighting as it was in 1969-1970…Accordingly, Israel has freedom of action to deal effectively in preventing another round of fighting, should Egypt wish to open fire again.”

– Yitzhak Rabin, “The slow road to peace,”  Ma’ariv, July 13, 1973.

This hopelessly erroneous assessment of the prevailing political and security parameters in the Middle East was made by none other than the man who served as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff at the time of the Six-Day War.

Fatal fallibility

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Significantly, it was made barely two months prior to the outbreak of the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Rabin was proven disastrously wrong about everything.

— The ability of the Arabs “to coordinate their political and military activities;”

—  Arab inability to achieve any significant military objectives;

— The nature of  superpower relations inhibiting the outbreak of war; and, most of all,

—  The need to call up reserves to deal with Arab military build-ups.

The Israeli public would do well to keep this firmly in mind when evaluating the merits of a campaign launched — or, more precisely, re-launched — this week by a group known as “Commanders for Israel’s Security” (CIS), reportedly comprised of around 250 retired security experts from the IDF, Israeli intelligence organizations and police. In a costly media blitz, which included a full page advertisement, in Arabic, in the leading dailies and prominent billboards on major highways, warning ominously of the perils of annexing Judea and Samaria, CIS urged the Israeli government to:

— Undertake immediate measures to “separate” from the Palestinians;

— Unilaterally declare readiness for far-reaching territorial concessions in Judea and Samaria, and;

— Forego, a priori, any claims to sovereignty beyond the current security barrier.

In an attempt to enlist public trust, CIS highlighted the years of accumulated security experience of its members, suggesting that their past record ensures the unimpeachable validity of their recommendations.

There is, of course, little to back up this far-reaching, and somewhat haughty, contention. After all, recent history is replete with instances in which the most senior military officers and security officials have proven themselves to be fatally fallible.

Experts’ erroneous estimates

Indeed, Rabin was not the only expert to err disastrously in his evaluation of impending events prior to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

On October 5, 1973 — a day before the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel — the head of Military Intelligence, Maj-Gen. Eli Zeira, informed a meeting of the General Staff: “There is a low probability of a coordinated Syrian-Egyptian attack. I would say the probability [is]…even lower than low.”

Zeira’s appraisal of the situation — proven catastrophically inaccurate within hours — was backed by the professional top-secret assessment of Military Intelligence’s research branch, which, that same day, provided the following report: “In the area of the [Suez] Canal, there are sightings of an emergency deployment, on a scale previously unknown…Despite the fact these sightings…ostensibly entail indications of an offensive initiative, to the best of our assessment, there has not been any change in the Egyptians’ appraisal of the balance of forces between themselves and the IDF. Accordingly, the probability that Egypt intends to renew the fighting is low.”

Sadly, and significantly, mistaken perceptions of enemy intentions by senior security experts are not confined to the 1973 Yom Kippur debacle. Indeed, the list of such erroneous estimates is disturbingly long.

Mistaken, misguided and misperceived

Take, for example, another former IDF chief of staff (1998–2002): Shaul Mofaz, later to become defense minister (2002–2006).

In the Knesset debate (October 24, 2005) on unilateral disengagement from Gaza, Mofaz declared: “I am convinced the [disengagement] process…will provide more security for Israel’s citizens, and will reduce the burden on the security forces. It will extricate the situation from its [current] stagnation and open the door to a different reality, which will allow talks toward achieving coexistence.”

Three subsequent military campaigns — Cast Lead (2008-9), Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014) — and the tangible prospect of future operations dramatically demonstrate the wild inaccuracy of his prognosis.

Indeed, during the same debate, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — one of the nation’s most iconic and experienced generals — told the Knesset: “I am firmly convinced and truly believe that this disengagement…will be appreciated by those near and far, reduce animosity, break through boycotts and sieges and advance us along the path of peace with the Palestinians and our other neighbors.”

Since then, Israel has faced increasing international censure, intensifying boycotts and has been compelled to engage in four bloody military campaigns (three in Gaza, one against Hezbollah in Lebanon) to quell attacks from “the Palestinians and our other neighbors,” who proved distinctly unappreciative of Sharon’s unilateral magnanimity.

Rank is no real recommendation

Of course, no survey of mistaken evaluations of the intentions of Israel’s adversaries would be complete without reference to what is, to date, arguably the most disastrous policy misperception of all: the Oslo Accords, made by Yitzhak Rabin, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for it.

In a 1995 radio interview barely six months after receiving the award, Rabin attempted to scornfully dismiss criticism of the accords: “The nightmare stories of the Likud are well known. After all, they promised rockets from Gaza… For a year, Gaza has been largely under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. There has not been a single rocket. Nor will there be any rockets.”

The ensuing barrage of thousands of rockets from Gaza, the millions of Israelis forced to seek shelter from them for weeks on end, are enough to make one cringe in embarrassment on encountering such a ludicrous prognosis from one of Israel’s most prominent authorities on security.

Similarly, the hasty and undignified retreat of the IDF that abandoned South Lebanon to Hezbollah — which precipitated the bloody 2006 Second Lebanon War and allowed the entire area to be transformed into a fearsome arsenal, bristling with over 100,000 missiles/rockets trained on virtually all major Israeli population centers — was initiated by none other than Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier and a former chief of staff.

So, there you have it. Whether it was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1993 Oslo Accords, the 2000 unilateral evacuation of South Lebanon or the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza, time and again the ability of the most senior and experienced security figures to accurately gauge the intentions of Israel’s adversaries have proven disastrously flawed — demonstrating that when it comes to assessing the outcome of strategic policy decisions, rank seems to be no real recommendation.

Hopelessly naïve and shortsighted

I confess that few things in the political discourse on Israel and its future sadden me more than the phenomenon of CIS. I am personally acquainted with several of the group’s more prominent and active members, and maintained cordial relationships with them — until they opted to associate themselves with this appallingly absurd initiative that the group is now trying to foist onto the public and elected government, perversely professing that it will — in some unspecified manner — enhance security, when it is patently obvious that it will do precisely the opposite.

Perhaps the most charitable way to characterize the CIS “plan” (for want of a better word) is to describe it as hopelessly naïve, shortsighted and totally devoid of any political foresight…or forethought.

Thus, apparently aware of strong public resistance to the notion of any further “unilateral” initiatives given the Gaza and South Lebanon fiascoes (both orchestrated by individuals with impeccable security credentials in Sharon and Barak), CIS attempts to allay these misgivings by assuring us: “In contrast with the unilateral withdrawals carried out in 2000 and 2005, [our] Plan calls for the IDF to remain in the West Bank and retain complete security control until a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians ushers in alternative concrete, sustainable arrangements.”

It requires little imagination to envision the pernicious political predicament such an injudicious move would create for Israel, were it to heed the CIS counsel.

First of all, CIS’s proposal would, in a stroke, convert Judea and Samaria from “disputed territory” to “occupied territory,” and the IDF from a “defense force” to an “occupying force.” Worse, it would do so by the explicit admission of Israel itself.

Entrapping the IDF in open-ended occupation

Moreover, as I have pointed out repeatedly, the basic elements of CIS’s “new unilateralism” — (a) the forswearing of claims to sovereignty over most of Judea-Samaria, and (b) the continued deployment of the IDF in that territory — replicate precisely the conditions that prevailed in South Lebanon until the IDF’s ignominious retreat.

Clearly, by conditioning the end of IDF deployment on the emergence of “a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians [that] ushers in alternative concrete, sustainable security arrangements,” CIS is, in fact, promoting a formula for open-ended occupation, whose duration is entirely dependent on the Palestinian-Arabs.

After all, according to the CIS plan, “The IDF [is] to remain in the West Bank and retain complete security control” until some suitable Palestinian interlocutor appears, one who is sufficiently pliant to satisfy Israel’s demands for said “permanent status agreement and concrete sustainable security arrangements,” but sufficiently robust to resist more radical domestic rivals who oppose any such agreement/arrangement.

But, as I have asked before, what if such an elusive interlocutor fails to emerge? After all, CIS’s plan clearly prescribes persisting with Israeli military presence in the territory because, as CIS itself concedes, “The situation in the West Bank requires…continued deployment of the IDF until satisfactory security arrangements are put into place within the framework of a permanent status agreement.”

So, in effect, all the Palestinian Arabs need to do to entrap the IDF in what will inevitably become an increasingly unpopular and untenable “occupation,” exposed to continual guerrilla attacks by a recalcitrant population, backed by armed Palestinian internal security services, is…well, very little.

Just like South Lebanon

Indeed, all they need do is wait until (a) mounting IDF casualties in a “foreign land” create increasing domestic pressure to “bring our boys home,” and (b) mounting international  impatience with unending “occupation” create growing external pressure, which make continued IDF deployment untenable, and withdrawal inevitable, without any “permanent settlement” or “sustainable security arrangements.”

Obviously, under such circumstances, any hope that the conflict can be officially resolved with some negotiated final-status agreement is hopelessly detached from reality. Indeed, why should the Palestinians offer any quid pro quo to negotiate the withdrawal of the IDF, when Israel has a priori conceded sovereignty to them and ceased all construction of the settlements, condemning those communities to inevitable decay and disintegration? Indeed, what would be the justification for further IDF deployment in the sovereign territory of others – especially as that deployment itself is likely to be cited as the major grievance precipitating the belligerency between the sides?

Accordingly, the CIS proposal for deploying the IDF for an indeterminate period, in territory over which it lays no sovereign claim — and hence, by implication, acknowledges that others have such claims to it — will clearly create an unsustainable political configuration, which, sooner or later, will generate irresistible pressure on Israel to evacuate, leaving the country exposed to the very dangers the IDF deployment was intended to obviate. Just as it did in Lebanon. Only, this time, in territory abutting major trans-Israel transportation axes, adjacent to the country’s major population centers and overlooking its only international airport.

Hardly “rocket science”

This is hardly rocket science.

Can the esteemed members of CIS really be oblivious to all this? Indeed, it is difficult to know which is more troubling: Whether they are aware of these deadly defects in their ill-conceived program but insist on promoting it anyway; or whether they are not, and are promoting their ill-conceived program out of sheer ignorance. In future columns, I will attempt to address these perturbing questions.

Meanwhile we are left to hope that with the new US administration, CIS will have a far less sympathetic ear in Washington.

Martin Sherman is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

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