Since the early days of statehood, Israel’s military policies have been based on the concept that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) must always take the battle to the enemy. Israel, with its difficult-to-defend borders, could ill afford a wholly defensive posture. This approach serves a dual purpose: first, as a deterrent to attack, and second, as a strategic guide to operations and military conduct during actual warfare.
Israel’s armed forces have been trained according to this canon, and the IDF has structured itself accordingly: There are large tank divisions capable of fighting a mobile war, and an air force capable of striking any target, near or far. But beyond defense, a key IDF strategic goal since 1967 has been that of strategic depth. That is, Israel is never to return to the essentially indefensible borders that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. For many policy planners and military leaders, this has been and remains the rationale for holding onto the West Bank and, before 2005s unilateral disengagement, the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli political landscape has been divided into two groups: those who believe peace is possible and that, thus, the nation can afford to give up the West Bank and Gaza in return for a peace agreement; and those who feel that the Palestinians will never make peace, making holding on to the territories essential for the indefinite future.
The lesson of disengagement
Ariel Sharon came to the realization that this was a fallacious choice. Though skeptical of the possibility that the Palestinians were ready to make peace, he came to recognize that the external and internal costs of retaining the territories would be exorbitant. Sharon believed that old assumptions were no longer valid and made a 180-degree turn, leading the withdrawal from Gaza, as well as constructing the security fence. He assumed that the deterrent power of the IDF would be enough after the Gaza pullout. Frankly, so did I. I was certain that once Israel had disengaged from Gaza, no one would dare attack us. After all, I believed, if they attacked from Gaza, Israel would clearly be within its rights to respond accordingly.
Unfortunately, when the first Kassam rocket landed, the Israeli reaction was muted. Of course, considering how the world generally reacts to any Israeli counterstrike, the reluctance of the government to use disproportionate force in response can be understood.
The additional problem: the IDF did not prepare a full defensive strategy to back the disengagement. Elements were added — clearly, the addition of the Iron Dome air defense system is an important component of such a strategy – but the government soon found itself in the position of, for example, having to reinforce school buildings located in communities around the periphery of Gaza. And keep in mind that the Iron Dome system had to be forced on an IDF and an Israel Air Force (IAF) that were wedded to the strategy of offense. Ask anyone who ever served in Israel’s anti-aircraft division and you will learn what limited respect that group ever got.
The Israeli offensive strategy has largely been proven ineffective over the past few years. Yes, the IDF can flatten every building in Beirut if rockets are fired on Israel, but will that stop them from raining down? And the IDF’s many tanks will be powerless to stop an Iranian attack. It is obvious that, after the fact of an attack, Israel would, without a doubt, be able to retaliate with the nuclear weaponry that the country is believed to possess. But for stopping the attack all together, Israel has to rely on only one system, the Arrow, like the Iron Dome developed by a reluctant IDF.
The recent success of Iron Dome underscored the advantage that Israeli technology can provide. Everyone agrees that the technology is a game-changer. It is not, however, a comprehensive solution. Some 20 percent of the rockets do penetrate the defensive shield, and although recently casualties have been extremely low, that result cannot always be counted upon. It is certainly not a percentage that we can accept going forward, if there is a possibility of an incoming nuclear warhead-equipped Iranian missile. So what options are open to Israel? As of today, we have been offered the questionable “choice” of either accepting this fate (unless, or until, we can achieve peace with the Palestinians) or going back into Gaza with the intention of uprooting Hamas and attacking and destroying the Iranian nuclear program before it is too late.
Peace, as much as we yearn for it, is not likely in the next few years. I do not see the Palestinian leadership agreeing in the foreseeable future to give up the “right of return,” which for Israel is a line that can never be crossed. As for re-occupying Gaza, what would be accomplished by this action? We have already “been there and done that.” Gaza has never been an especially inviting place for the IDF and there is no reason to believe that it will be any better next time around. And the feasibility of eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat by military means would be, suffice it to say, a challenge of overwhelming proportions.
The best defense is a good… defense
Instead, I suggest another path: that Israel embrace defensive warfare to the fullest possible extent. Imagine a country with dozens of Iron Dome systems, each system backed up by a laser-based defensive system to destroy any missiles that might pierce the Dome. Imagine that Israel puts its formidable technical skills to the task of developing defensive weapons with ever-greater efficacy, thereby rendering useless the arsenal of weapons being designed by Israel’s outspoken enemies in Tehran as well as in Gaza. We have a 30-year technological lead over our opponents; let’s put it to good use.
Many question whether Iran would be willing to absorb a counter strike in order to attack Israel. It is dangerous to believe that the Iranians would not attack to destroy the “Zionist enemy” for fear of a counterstrike. Though calculations have suggested that an Iranian nuclear device would have but a one in five chance of reaching Israel, from our perspective that is too high. From their perspective, it might well be enough to strike such a blow. But would that be the case if the Iranians knew that Israel had deployed a multi-layered, highly redundant system that would decrease the chances of a successful Iranian missile penetration to 2%? And that Israel would respond to even the attempted strike with a full nuclear response, as the doctrine of deterrence requires? The answer seems obvious.
Can Israel afford such a system? It will be difficult, it will be expensive, and it will require some serious shifts in strategic planning. It may be necessary to rethink the wisdom of purchasing a full squadron of F-35s at $200 million a pop, and maybe Israel really doesn’t need so many tank brigades. It’s time for innovative strategic thinking, for a change, before it’s too late.