Stuart Cohen, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, is the author of The Scroll or the Sword? Dilemmas of Religion and Military Service in Israel (Harwood Academic Press, 1998).
The principal requirements of Israel's present security agenda would seem to be fairly transparent: maintain strategic partnerships with the United States and Turkey, build on peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and cope with enemies like Syria and Iran. More specific items would include the extraction of Israeli soldiers from southern Lebanon, a satisfactory treaty with Syria, a final settlement with the Palestinian Authority, and defense capabilities against missile attacks.
All of these issues are, to be sure, important, even pressing. But they constitute only individual trees in a complex strategic forest. That security forest encompasses more fundamental concerns, three of which we shall take up here: Whether Israel must change the basic concepts that shaped its national security thinking for the past fifty years; how the "revolution in military affairs" affects the Israel Defense Force (IDF); and what the likely effects will be of ongoing changes in the relationship between the IDF and Israeli society at large.
I. The Need for change
Over the years, Israelis grew accustomed to contending with a regional milieu which, precisely because it was so consistently antagonistic, remained basically familiar. Moreover, since Israel's policy choices were so restricted, their formulation seemed self-evident. Factors such as space (in Israeli security parlance, "lack of strategic depth"), demographic asymmetry (the overwhelming Arab numerical superiority), and a "pariah" status in the international community (which deepened Israel's dependence on U.S. goodwill) determined Israel's defense posture, which was based on deterrence. Should deterrence fail, the IDF had to be prepared to fight short offensive wars, preemptively if possible. These were to be characterized by high-tempo battles of maneuver and movement, preferably on enemy territory, and to aim at the swift and decisive destruction of Arab forces, conventional and irregular alike.1 In several respects, Israel continues to project the image of a society under siege. Compulsory military service remains a ubiquitous feature of many an Israeli's private life; all citizens are by law required to possess a personal gas mask.
Nevertheless, the sense of urgency which once characterized Israeli attitudes towards matters of national security has visibly abated. Survey research confirms that the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the advances in the peace process have had a profound impact on public opinion. Although the sense of national safety has not reached the levels obtaining in the West since the end of the cold war, "peace and security" (one of the most prominent of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's slogans in his 1999 election campaign) undoubtedly appear more realistic to many than ever before.
This changed perception means that Israelis, for the first time in their history, find they can choose among competing definitions of national security. While many of the traditional parameters listed above remain unquestioned, others are in a state of flux. Weapons technology alters the consequences of Israel's geography. Political transformations are altering her strategic landscape, with Iran, once Israel's friend, now a cardinal foe, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) now a partner of sorts. Several Soviet successor states, notably Armenia and Azerbaijan, are sources of profitable defense contracts. Such changes do not necessarily invalidate all previous Israeli security thinking, but they do suggest that previously axiomatic strategic
premises should be re-assessed.
While hawks and doves in Israel dispute the precise substance of that re-assessment, both sides agree that its process must display a marked improvement over the country's traditionally haphazard style of decision-making. In the past, key decisions in this realm have been the preserve of Israel's "security community"—an intimate circle that includes a small number of government ministers, the heads of the various intelligence agencies, senior officials in the Ministry of Defense, and members of the IDF general staff. Within this compact group, the formulation of Israeli national security policies has owed more to the random predilections of individual ministers and generals than to a systematic process of reasoned analysis. Israel has never possessed a senior forum explicitly mandated to look beyond everyday pressures and develop long-term strategy. Even such fundamental strategic decisions as the abandonment of "nonalignment" in the 1950s, the development of a potential nuclear capability in the 1960s, and the formation of military alliances with first France, then the United States and now Turkey were never thoroughly debated by a formal grand strategic council—let alone publicly legitimated by a constitutionally-authorized body. All were initiated, and implemented, by the very few individuals whose hands happened to be on the levers of the defense framework.
Although the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Defense and the IDF all maintain policy-planning units, each of these has always been small and fiercely jealous of its autonomy. Even on the few occasions when those bodies have cooperated, their impact on overall national security thinking has been minimal. So too has that of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee in the Knesset(parliament), as well as its own subcommittees, whose members rarely exploit their position to act as the nation's security watchdog and to review accepted strategic concepts.
Yehuda Ben-Meir, a onetime deputy foreign minister of Israel, has been an especially eloquent advocate of the need to break with past practice. He has called for a formal, central system to coordinate intelligence and examine strategic options,2 but his recommendations have been largely ignored by the heads of the security community. So, too, were the policy suggestions of the Agranat commission, the official committee of inquiry established in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, which in 1974 advocated the establishment of an agency akin to the U.S. government's National Security Council. Notwithstanding a broad agreement that the reverses in the first days of the October 1973 war were in part due to the improvised, uncoordinated nature of Israeli defense planning, nothing changed. Opposition on the part of the IDF and successive ministers of defense obstructed this initiative until the spring of 1999. And even though a skeleton security council was then set up, intra-governmental resistance remained powerful enough to deprive it of real influence, principally by ensuring that its mandate was limited to comparatively peripheral concerns.
In addition to bureaucratic self-interest, this situation results from a deeply ingrained pattern of Zionist thinking. Ever since its inception, Jewish nationalism—certainly in its mainstream versions—has overwhelming preferred to take a pragmatic approach to issues as they arose. It has avoided explicitly architectured statements of policy that are methodically extrapolated, step by doctrinal step, from fundamental postulates concerning the nature and purposes of the Jewish state. In many policy areas (immigration and settlement policies are two outstanding examples), it remains an unspoken rule that action creates doctrine, rather than the other way around. This outlook has also been very clear in the realm of security affairs.
David Ben Gurion (Israel's first prime minister and minister of defense) made some stabs at sketching a national security doctrine, but although he introduced such terms as "deterrence" and "absence of strategic depth" to the Israeli security lexicon, he remained wedded to the Zionist tradition of pragmatism. Perhaps for that reason, his exercise in national security conceptualization was never formalized; and its conclusions were not subjected to regular review. From his time on, to read successive expositions of official Israeli security thinking is to gain a monotonous impression of entrenched strategic diagnosis and repetitive military prognosis, from which elements of dynamic and innovative thought are almost totally absent.3
The most serious casualty of this situation has undoubtedly been the IDF. Bereft of clear strategic guidelines, formally thrashed out during the course of regular dialogues between representatives of different points of view, Israel's generals have, in intellectual terms, tended to live from hand to mouth. Instead of attempting to conceptualize the principles underlying their mission statements, they have invariably resorted to variations on the theme of ein bereirah ("we have no choice"). The need for a new approach was frankly acknowledged as long ago as August 1994, in the valedictory address then delivered by Major-General Yossi Ben Hanan, on his retirement as commander of the National Defense College: "We are living in the midst of a situation whose results cannot be predicted, but which undoubtedly require us to review national security processes and doctrines afresh."4
The old way of doing business had its virtues. But it has outlived its utility at a time when basic transformations in the security environment require strategic choices. Against a background of rapid change, the absence of a comprehensive and periodically revised statement of Israel's national security goals and policies merely generates indecision and uncertainty. Also, in a democracy such as Israel's, these are best discussed openly.
II. A Professional Army?
Institutionalizing the strategic planning process has another potential advantage: it might compel Israel's security community, as well as the larger Israeli public, to come to terms with a fact that is well known but rarely discussed: the need to change the nature of Israel's army, the IDF.
Since its inception in 1948, the IDF has exhibited the attributes of a "people's army"—a militia force whose personnel are mostly conscripts and reservists. By design, long-service professionals have always constituted a small component of the force. Societal considerations apart, the IDF's preference for this system of service is usually justified on the grounds that it has proven both cheap and flexible. A "three-tier" framework of conscripts, professionals, and reservists is said to relieve Israel of the expense and encumbrance of a large standing army, without impeding the ability to match forces and defense requirements. The reservoir of experienced reservists can be mobilized in large numbers and at short notice whenever the IDF is called upon to deter or repel a full-scale enemy invasion (categorized as a "basic security" threat), such as was feared in 1967 and experienced in both 1948 and 1973. Non-critical ("current security") missions, which have taken up most of the IDF's operational time, can be adequately carried out by whichever troops happen to be on duty.5
An understandable tendency to write up the virtues of the IDF's militia-type structure6 has distracted attention from the tactical conditions that have facilitated its success. In retrospect, the entire three-tier framework can be seen to have rested on the assumption that, considering the usually poor quality of Arab military personnel and training (at least until 1973), much of the soldiering required of IDF troops was comparatively elementary. Combat pilots and combat-support aviation technicians were, of course, from the first expected to attain an exceptional degree of proficiency; hence, the ratio of long-service professionals to reservists and conscripts in the air force, long seen as Israel's first line of strategic defense, is disproportionately high. But no such quota was thought necessary in the ground forces, whose personnel comprise the bulk of the IDF's fighting complement. There, the vast majority of servicemen are expected to attain the required levels of competence and battle-readiness during their few years of conscript service and to retain those standards as reservists by means of short refresher courses and intermittent training exercises.
These assumptions no longer appear quite so valid for two reasons—the revolution in military affairs and the nature of the challenges that the IDF now confronts.
The Revolution in Military Affairs. Future battlefield scenarios, on the ground as well as in the air and at sea, are being transformed by exponential advances in the production of "smart" weapons and by the high-technology nature of modern, computerized systems of command, control, communications, and intelligence. Referred to in the aggregate as the "revolution in military affairs," these changes call not only for the acquisition of a more advanced arsenal; they also require the development of a different caliber of soldier—one who has undergone the lengthy and intensive training necessary to become expert in the maintenance and realization of complex battle-platforms. Can relatively short-term conscripts, even well-educated ones, acquire the needed skills? Can part-time reservists be relied upon to conserve their skills under conditions of accelerated technological change? In short, do not present conditions mandate a shift to a more professional force, principally, if not entirely, composed of career personnel?
Answers vary. While one school of thought in Israel (associated with such think tanks as the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University and the Carmel Institute for Military Studies in Zikhron Ya'akov) preaches the advantages of an all-volunteer force, other voices (such as Ze'ev Schiff, the widely respected military commentator for the newspaper Ha'aretz) warn of its risks. This debate raises a host of issues: Can the IDF afford to forego its claim on the services of all available manpower? How does one compute the financial costs of a professional force (to the national economy as a whole and to the military's own budget)? What are its organizational requirements? What are the social and political
Other advanced countries are able to weigh the pros and cons of military force restructuring in comparative leisure.7 But Israel possesses no such luxury. Hence here, too, matters have proceeded at an uneven pace. In the decade since General Dan Shomron (IDF chief of staff, 1987-1991) first proclaimed Israel's need for a "smaller and smarter" army, the military has certainly abandoned various tenets of the country's traditional militia concept. Conscription is now much more selective than in the past; the size of the reserve complement has been halved; increasingly, material inducements for junior officers to contract for extended periods of professional service, especially in engineering and high-tech combat support units, have been considerably augmented. Nevertheless, it remains questionable whether even these moves fully satisfy the needs of the new technological environment situation, and do not require a more radical approach.
Changed enemies. There is another reason why an army principally composed of reservists, however talented, may be more of a security burden than a security asset. Thanks to the peace process, the conventional ground and air forces of Israel's immediate neighbors present a less immediate threat to the country than do two other categories of enemy—sub-conventional forces and weapons of mass destruction. The former consists primarily of Hamas-led intransigents based in the Palestinian Authority and Hizbullahunits operating in southern Lebanon. Their ability to endanger Israeli soldiers and civilians has transformed what was for long considered a minor irritant into a major operational burden. Since the pullback of IDF forces to a narrow strip of territory in southern Lebanon in 1985, almost 200 Israeli troops have been killed in combat in that region; terrorist attacks over the same period have caused the deaths of a similar number of Israeli citizens, most of them within Israel proper.
The other, even more menacing, cluster of new foes consists of the outer ring of radical states, some more dangerous than others, but all of them with the potential to aim weapons of mass destruction at Israel: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Algeria. Geographical distance once permitted Israel to categorize these states as remote and secondary enemies, but as the Iraqi Scud attacks of 1991 demonstrated, medium-range missiles now allow "over the horizon" forces to attack Israeli targets without coming into physical contact with the IDF. That ability would be considerably enhanced were they also to acquire still more lethal, and perhaps non-conventional, weapons of mass destruction.8
These new conditions mandate revisions in the IDF's traditional order of battle. A military principally based on the trinity of a tactical air arm, large mobile armored formations, and multipurpose infantry units now appears increasingly obsolescent. On the one hand, operations against Hamas and Hizbullah units require forces specifically trained and equipped for low-intensity combat; while threats from weapons of mass destruction necessitate an advanced antimissile system and the ability to project force at greater distances by naval and air personnel. The particularly onerous conditions of service such missions entail, quite apart from the levels of experience and training they require, preclude a reliance on reservists. These tasks must be entrusted to professionals.
Sensitive to these dangers, IDF force planners have initiated several organizational reforms. To repair the inadequacies of the old civil defense system, they have established an entirely new Rear Command; to deal with weapons of mass destruction, they envision a Strategic Command based on the Arrow antimissile system. In response to future land-battle scenarios, the Ground Forces Command has been restructured and more managerial autonomy granted to individual unit commanders.9 These signs of the military's capacity for adaptation are significant. But they take place against the resilience of what a recent study terms the IDF's tradition of "conservative innovation."10 This means that, for all their receptivity to tactical and operation innovations, Israeli strategic planners have generally resisted more fundamental revisions to first-order priorities. Available evidence indicates that the IDF has not yet managed to unburden itself of its organizational legacy of resistance to radical change. To be fair, successive ministers of defense, themselves usually former generals, have not pressured it to do so. Few generals or politicians discuss the universal conscription issue, for instance, preferring in the time-honored Zionist style to let changes happen and then find justifications for them.
All this means that Israel's recent inventory of military-institutional reforms reads more like a series of hesitant starts and cautious stops than the record of a steady and confident march towards clearly defined goals.
III. Relations with Israeli Society
Relations between Israelis and their army were, until very recently, characterized by a fundamental harmony. The broad center of Israeli opinion overwhelmingly cknowledged the military's primacy in the national ethos and its priority in the allocation of national resources, human as well as material. Occasional instances of civil-military friction, even when conspicuous, could be considered aberrations, especially since they were limited to society's peripheries. Quite apart from being enveloped by strict censorship, military affairs were shielded from critical scrutiny by the even more protective cocoon of public adulation. This atmosphere was all the more conspicuous for contrasting so sharply with the divisiveness evident in other spheres. Ever since the declaration of statehood in 1948 (sometimes, even earlier), Israel's policies with respect to such matters as religious affairs, international alignment, immigration, and education were debated in a spirit of heated political contention. By contrast, topics of narrowly defined security concern were virtually immune to such domestic bickering. In films, novels, the theater, and in song, Israel's servicemen and women were portrayed as the guardians and repositories of national virtue. Add to this the IDF's roll of martial triumphs, especially during the 1967 Six Days' War, and it is not hard to understand how the force came to enjoy a public status which was altogether iconic and often approached the sacral.
Fifty years after its foundation, the IDF continues to head the list of national institutions in which public opinion expresses most confidence. But the polls also show that its position at the very top of popular esteem is no longer assured. Polled in each of the years 1987-1999, an average of 35.5 percent of the Jewish Israeli population considered their country's military strength to be decreasing; a further 10 percent responded that the decline was "significant."11 Recruitment figures tell a still more informative tale. Senior IDF sources now openly admit to fluctuations in what they term "motivation to service" among some classes of new recruits. They also report that in reserve units absenteeism has occasionally reached "epidemic" proportions.12
Students of Israeli society attribute such changes to a wide variety of causes. Some analysts see these developments in Israel reflecting themes that affect the tone of civil-military relations in many if not most democratic societies since the end of the cold war. From this perspective, the decline in the IDF's centrality resembles shifts occurring elsewhere in the world towards "post-modern" values and "post-military" priorities. Other interpretations, however, focus more on specifically local circumstances. Israeli society, they argue, has become "war-weary" (not surprisingly, considering that the country has been continuously at war ever since its birth) and no longer so prepared as of old to pay the price in blood and treasure that national security still requires. Or the IDF itself is blamed for this change in attitude, having permitted its reputation for integrity to be tarnished by training accidents, sporadic abuses of human rights, and financial corruption. The mediocre level of the IDF's recent operational record (which some accounts attribute to the corrosive effects produced by its protracted role as an army of occupation)13 has further exacerbated this decline in prestige.
Whatever the reasons for this change, it requires Israel's military to defend itself from institutions that until recently came to its support. The media, for long almost totally subservient to the IDF spokesmen, in the past decade has adopted an attitude toward military matters (and most others) that is intrusive and critical, highlighting occasional instances of both command misconduct and institutional malfunction. Much the same is true of the civil judiciary, which now encroaches upon several areas that an earlier age considered to be the IDF's exclusive preserve. In this respect, a milestone was reached—and crossed—in the spring of 1999, when Israel's Supreme Court upheld an injunction against the promotion of a senior officer to the rank of lieutenant-general, on the grounds that as the commander had been convicted of sexual harassment, he was unfit for advancement, even though he had already been punished for this by a military court.
Most portentous of all, the IDF may be losing the support of the families of many servicemen and women. Abandoning their once-characteristic restraint, parents of conscripts, sometimes organized into formal associations, increasingly claim the right to a say on matters affecting the welfare and safety of their loved ones. Their demands extend far beyond improvements in conditions of routine service. Some parents lobby for formal representation on the military tribunals established in the wake of training and combat mishaps. Others, such as the Four Mothers movement that calls on the IDF to withdraw from Lebanon, seek to influence operational deployments.
Senior service officers tend to react to this new atmosphere with barely disguised dismay. They frequently plea for clearer distinctions between societal involvement (in Hebrew: me'uravut) in matters military, which is generally welcomed, and societal interference (hitarvut) which, unless checked, might undermine the IDF's professional autonomy. To dismiss such appeals as nothing more than the forlorn cry of conservative die-hards, wistfully recalling a palmier era when Israel's domestic environment was altogether more deferential and more disciplined, is to miss their true import. They suggest that the disillusionment that now permeates large areas of societal-military relations in Israel has become mutual, with senior IDF personnel reciprocating in full measure the criticisms to which they are themselves subject. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Barak's successor as chief of staff, has wondered out loud on several occasions whether Israeli society is still worthy of its armed forces. In more subdued tones, other senior staff have warned that the quasi-inquisitorial tone currently typical of public comment on military subjects must, sooner or later, undermine the morale of frontline troops.
Disturbing under any circumstances, dissonance of this order generates particular concern in a society weaned on its self-image as a "nation in arms."14 Indeed, the waning of the IDF's domestic status threatens to undermine the very foundations on which national survival has hitherto depended. In large measure, the effectiveness of all military forces is a direct correlate of their affinity with the society which they are mandated to protect. Israel's experience very much tends to confirm this rule of thumb.
IV. Ehud Barak's Chance
Ehud Barak's biography suggests that if anyone is capable of coming to grips with these three intersecting challenges and bringing the issue of basic change into the open, it is he. As a former IDF chief of staff (1991-1995), and one of the most abundantly decorated soldiers in Israeli military history, he enjoys unequaled status as an authority on Israeli security affairs. He also possesses a particularly fertile mind. Although he rose through the ranks of the IDF by observing the proprieties that determine advancement to senior command in any military, a streak of nonconformity runs through his career. Even before his appointment as chief of staff, he was notorious for his view that many of the conventions of the IDF's past were almost as much an influence to overcome as to cherish.
Once in office as chief of staff, he was even more insistent that Israel be prepared for what he called "the future battlefield." Exploiting his high public profile, he waxed enthusiastic about the IDF's need to undergo a thorough "cultural reform," an umbrella term which incorporated new managerial techniques, greater investments in research and development programs (and in the personnel required for them), a preference for specifically combat tasks rather than missions of a quasi-civilian nature, and a review of future force requirements.15 It was under his aegis that the IDF began to think about basic change, which was itself a considerable achievement. But, even at the summit of the military command, Barak was unable to get as much done as he had said was needed while he was on the way up. The IDF that he bequeathed to his successor was not smaller or smarter than the one he had inherited.
Now that Barak combines the offices of prime minister and minister of defense, he is particularly well-placed to muster the political consensus required to continue the reform momentum. Thus far, his record has been mixed, however. Yes, he has made eloquent appeals for civil-military harmony and a return to the traditional values of patriotism and pride in national service.16 But on a practical level his proposals have been somewhat less impressive, amounting only to such half-measures as improvements in the post-service conditions of enlisted personnel (notwithstanding massive cuts in the overall defense budget) and proposals for conscripting of the growing numbers of ultra-orthodox (haredi) young men now being excused from military duty on religious grounds.17 Both recommendations do warrant attention, not least because they address two problems of especial symbolic resonance; yet, even if they are implemented (which is far from certain), they address symptoms rather than causes.
Circumstances cry out for far more radical adjustments, perhaps along the lines that Barak himself proposed when he was chief of staff. Three reforms stand out: a drastic reduction in traditional civilian-oriented military investments—immigrant absorption and land reclamation; a change in conscription regulations; and a reform of the security decision-making structure to unfreeze public discussion on Israel's overall strategy and to initiate a bottom-up study of more comprehensive changes.
If Ehud Barak's outstanding military background and his centrist political views give him a foundation on which to propose policies to address these issues, it remains to be seen whether he possesses the statesmanship required to disentangle himself from the day-to-day pressures of office and address the underlying issues upon which Israel's security ultimately rests.
1 Michael I. Handel, "The Evolution of Israeli Strategy: The Psychology of Insecurity and the Quest for Absolute Security," The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War, ed. Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 534-578.
2 Yehuda Ben-Meir, National Security Decision-Making: The Israeli Case (Tel-Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1985); idem., Civil-Military Relations in Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
3 For a recent example of the extent to which traditional views are still considered dogma, see Israel Tal, Bitahon Le'umi: Me‘atim Mul Rabim (Tel-Aviv: Dvir Publications, 1996).
4 Ma'ariv, Aug. 12, 1994.
5 "The reserve army must be counted amongst the most important of the people of Israel's collective national creations." (Tal, Bitahon Leumi, p. 76).
6 Shmuel Gordon, "Be‘ad Giyus Barerani," Ma‘archot, 328 (1993): 32-37.
7 James Burk, ed., The Military in New Times: Adapting Armed Forces to a Turbulent World (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).
8 For a recent restatement of this position by the commander of the Israel Air Force, see Eiytan Ben-Eliyahu, "Otzmah Avirit Yisraelit Likrat Shnat Alpayim," Publications of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (Tel-Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1999).
9 Gal Luft, "Israel's Impending Revolution in Military Affairs," PeaceWatch, Mar. 4, 1999; Shaul Mofaz, "Tzahal Bishnat 2000," Ma‘archot, 363 (1999): 2-9.
10 Eliot Cohen, Michael Eisenstadt, and Andrew Bacevich, Knives, Tanks, and Missiles: Israel's Security Revolution (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998), pp. 81-104.
11 Asher Arian at a symposium on "Military and Civil Society in Israel," Haifa University, May 5, 1999. See also idem., Security Threatened: Surveying Israeli Opinion on Peace and War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 54-89.
12 Interview with Uzi Dayan, Ha‘aretz, Feb. 3, 1999.
13 Compare: Gabriel Ben-Dor, "Yahasei Tzavah-Ezrahim be-Yisrael be-Emtzah Shenot ha-Tishim," Atzma'ut: Hamishim ha-Shanim Ha-Rishonot, Anita Shapira, ed. (Jerusalem: Shazar Center, 1998), pp. 471-486; Martin Van Creveld, The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force (New York: Public Affairs, 1998), pp. 353-362.
14 Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, Trouble in Utopia: The Overburdened Polity of Israel (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), pp. 138-144.
15 Yedi'ot Aharonot, Mar. 23, 1993.
16 Ma‘ariv, Sept. 10, 1999.