The Sword and the Olive
A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force
by Martin van Creveld
New York: Public Affairs, 1998. 320 pp. $27.50 ($17, paper).
Reviewed by Gal Luft
Johns Hopkins University
Middle East Quarterly
Impressive military victories in 1948-49, 1956, 1967, and 1973 garnered the Israel Defense Force (IDF) a legendary status and an image of invincibility. This image, according to van Creveld, was so powerful that it obscured some of the flaws that then pervaded the IDF in the next era. As a corrective, he presents a dispassionate, critical account of the IDF's history, the only volume on this topic that touches on the less-shining era of the 1982 war in Lebanon, the first Palestinian intifada (1987-93), and the Kuwait war.
The book's first half relies on secondary sources and reveals little new information about Israel's earlier military experiences. The second half is unique and valuable. It describes the IDF's failure to adapt to the evolving challenges presented by its opponents. Whereas the first Arab-Israeli wars were conventional engagements, recent wars were primarily guerrilla campaigns in which numerical strength and technological superiority no longer mattered as much. Furthermore, van Creveld describes in detail what he terms the "betrayal of faith"—the decline in the prestige and credibility of the IDF in the eyes of the Israeli public. His description of excessive media scrutiny, parents' intervention in military affairs, growing numbers of deserters, and a decline in social elites' willingness to join the officer corps is accurate.
But the events of the past two years have proven his critique short-lived. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, the IDF has successfully conducted guerrilla fighting in complex urban environments managing to degrade the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure with fewer casualties than anticipated, and it did all this while enjoying mounting popular domestic support. In fact, the number of volunteers for service in elite combat units is on the rise, and reservists called to serve turn up in record numbers. Fighting for a cause Israelis perceive as just, the IDF shows, contrary to critics like van Creveld, that it is still one of the most effective militaries in the world and remains not far from its zenith.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, History, Israel | Gal Luft | Winter 2003 MEQ
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