The question is heretical, and yet it was implicitly raised by many Israelis on the right and left following Israel's recent "Operation Guardian of the Walls." The IDF is powerful but, for a variety of reasons, it is unable to defeat the terrorists who constantly threaten the homeland.
In an article in IsraelDefense, Amir Rapaport spoke admiringly of Israel's precision weapons but concluded, "When Hamas knows that every bomb has a very precise target, it can simply avoid being in places targeted for attack, or be very deep underground." The article concluded: "The bottom line is that in the current conditions of the war in Gaza, the most that Israel can hope to achieve is a tie."
Aluf Benn wrote in Haaretz that Israel was unable to do sufficient damage to weaken "Hamas' willingness and ability to attack Israel's home front."
Similarly, Daniel Gordis wrote, "It is lost on very few Israelis that after almost two weeks of heavy bombardment by one of the world's most powerful air forces, Hamas was still firing plenty of rockets." He quoted Assaf Sagiv, who he described as "a highly respected, right-of-center Israeli public intellectual," who was even more scathing:
I do not want to sound like a defeatist, but there is nothing more pathetic than an army that boasts about the dubious achievement of bombing a city that has no defenses. No conquest of territories, no victory in a frontal confrontation, no capture of enemy fighters — just a constant crushing from the air of a pathetic militia dug into burrows and hiding behind civilians.
It is true the IDF succeeded in killing a number of commanders who are not easily replaced, but even if every announced casualty was a fighter—and we know they were not—Israel only eliminated a trivial number. After 1,500 airstrikes, killing fewer than 200 terrorists is not very impressive or likely to impact the ability of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to resume the battle at the time and place of their choosing.
Benn noted that Iron Dome saved many lives, but Israel still had never been hit by so many rockets. "Ashkelon has turned into a ghost town, and homes without shelters have been abandoned," he wrote before the ceasefire. More ominously, he noted "all of this is tiny compared to what Hezbollah is capable of doing."
Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren captured the IDF's dilemma since the time of the disengagement: "Shooting back at Hamas enhanced Hamas's prestige in the eyes of the Palestinian people—it proved they were resisting Israel and sacrificing themselves for the cause—but not firing back at Hamas enhanced its prestige as well by showing that Israel was scared."
Israel is just as hamstrung by Hezbollah. In 2006, Oren recalled the "IDF killed as much as a quarter of all Hezbollah's forces, and destroyed a large part of its infrastructure," but that didn't stop the rockets from falling on Israeli cities. Moreover, Israel was "vilified in the media for acting disproportionately, and increasingly pressured by the international community" to accept a ceasefire after which Hezbollah rearmed.
The time between Israeli operations affords the terrorists the opportunity to increase the size and lethality of their arsenal. Thus, following "Operation Protective Edge" in the summer of 2014, Hamas amassed not only more rockets, but, thanks to Iran, developed and smuggled weapons that could reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Similarly, Hezbollah is now thought to have amassed as many as 150,000 rockets and has built factories to produce higher-precision weapons.
Israel's fear of losses and inability to inflict prohibitive punishment on enemies prevent decisive victory.
The combination of Israel's "fear of military and civilian losses" and inability "to inflict truly prohibitive punishment on our enemies, and to withstand international pressure," in Oren's view, has all but guaranteed the IDF cannot achieve a decisive victory.
The question of the IDF's ability to defend the country is also implicit in the fears over the threat of a Palestinian state. Yes, such an entity would be on Israel's doorstep and could turn into Hamastan, allowing terrorists to easily target Jerusalem and Israel's heartland, but isn't fear of a Palestinian state an admission that the army can't protect the country against a rump state with no tanks, planes or artillery?
The Gaza precedent isn't reassuring.
Once heralded as among the most powerful armies in the world, Global Firepower, which uses more than 50 factors, including military might, financial strength, logistical capability and geography to determine a nation's "PowerIndex," ranks Israel No. 20—lower than Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
It's not a lack of firepower, however, that has limited Israel's ability to win decisive victories. Israelis have become increasingly averse to their own casualties, and who can blame them? As Gordis points out, the alternative to the operations it has conducted "is to essentially go back to square one where no Israeli wants to be by reoccupying the territories after a battle that will inevitably cost many Israeli civilian and soldiers' lives, kill many more Palestinians, terrorists and civilians, and further scar, perhaps irreparably, Israel's international image and standing."
The IDF is constrained by its morality, not lack of firepower.
Israel is further constrained by the morality of its army, the fact that it is not one of the world's powers and its dependence on the United States.
Most Israelis consider the IDF's "purity of arms" a strength. However, the United States and other Western powers (never mind Russia and China) can get away with killing civilians with impunity in the interest of their security. Israel goes to extreme lengths to avoid civilian casualties, giving up the element of surprise to warn Palestinians of impending attacks, allowing terrorists to escape. Still, innocent Palestinians inevitably are killed, and Israel is pilloried whether the number is one or 1,000. Hamas exploits this reality. As Oren observed, Hamas knows it can't destroy Israel, but by provoking Israel to fire back and kill innocent civilians, it can "whittle away at Israel's international legitimacy."
Like many American Jews, Oren believes that "the main battlefield" is the "court of world opinion" and that if only Israel's PR was better, Israel could be victorious in this arena. Oren is one of Israel's more effective purveyors of hasbara but should know this is a fantasy. I've been a soldier on this "battlefield" for more than 30 years, and I learned long ago that no explanation—no matter how rational or articulate—is going to help Israel win the battle for public opinion when, for example, The New York Times puts the pictures of 64 children it says were killed by Israel on its front page. The United States, where there is a wellspring of support for Israel, is far less problematic than Europe.
Also, since Israel depends on America for military aid and political support, it cannot afford to alienate the president. Consequently, whether it was Ronald Reagan during the Lebanon War or Joe Biden last May, Israel has little choice but to accede to presidential demands for a ceasefire whether a military operation is completed or not.
This doesn't mean Israel cannot take bold actions, as in bombing the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities. The IDF also is capable of achieving a certain level of deterrence; the threat of the mass destruction of Lebanon, for example, has so far discouraged Hezbollah from firing its rockets.
Nevertheless, Gordis essentially waves a white flag. He says, "The purpose of Israel's creation was not peace. Peace (internal or external) is a critical goal, and internally, it may well be necessary for Israel's long-term survival. But Israel's purpose is not that, Israel's purpose is the flourishing of the Jewish people."
By this logic, the IDF does not have to be victorious in the sense of eliminating threats to the Jewish state, it must only avoid losing. As long as Israelis can live their lives Jewishly—if only in the observance of the Hebrew calendar—and achieve a level of prosperity as the startup nation and creator of Jewish culture, occasional conflict is tolerable.
Mitchell Bard is a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books.