The October 7th war being waged by Israel against the Hamas military forces has reached a crossroads that demands tough decision-making: Should the IDF continue the military operation at any cost, or should Israel agree soon to a ceasefire and engage in negotiations for the return of the hostages?
While the battles in the southern Gaza Strip and the humanitarian crisis there are shrouded under the fog of war, TV commentators have been voicing their opinions about “what the IDF should do.” Here, I would like to propose what the IDF should not do.
We should not seek an image of triumph at any cost in the form of symbolic victories, such as reaching Yahya Sinwar’s bunker or any other illusory achievement with no long-term political or strategic significance, and that will exact a heavy price in the lives of soldiers, hostages or both. The Hamas leaders responsible for the brutal attack on innocent citizens will pay with their lives sooner or later.
Israeli history offers a painful illustration of what can go horribly wrong when decision-makers feel pressure to score a knock-out win following an embarrassing defeat. The example comes from the battle for the city of Suez in the last two days of the Yom Kippur War, the war that 50 years later reminds us so much of the current conflict.
On October 22, 1973, the UN Security Council passed a resolution regarding a ceasefire that would begin that same evening. During the night between October 22 and 23, the IDF managed to encircle the third Egyptian army. This was an exceptional military achievement and could have concluded the war from Israel’s perspective.
On October 23, however, after a second UN resolution was passed to impose the ceasefire but before the arrival of UN observers to the area, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the occupation of the city of Suez, even though time was running out on the diplomatic clock and there was no strategic importance at that stage of the war for capturing the city. Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Israel Tal opposed the move but was unable to stop it (and consequently was not appointed Chief of Staff after the war).
An armored brigade from the 162nd division entered the embattled city, was drawn into an Egyptian ambush, and required rescue from paratrooper units. In the pointless battle to capture the city of Suez, 80 IDF soldiers were killed and 120 were wounded, including tank fighters and paratroopers. The failure was attributed to hasty preparation and inadequate intelligence regarding the extent of Egyptian forces in the city, and, of course, the very limited time that was available for the operation due to the ceasefire imposed on the IDF by the UN.
Military historians have concluded that Defense Minister Dayan sought a last-minute victory and ordered the occupation of the city even though this move would not fundamentally alter the war’s outcome. Despite the IDF brass’s reservations about pursuing that battle, Dayan chased after that victory shot.
I raise the Suez debacle here out of a deep worry that history might repeat itself –that we might once again witness ‘Last Battle Syndrome.’ My concerns are particularly heightened given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s blatant attempt to shirk responsibility for the historic failure that led to this current war.
The October 7 war won’t go down in the history of the IDF and the State of Israel as a great victory. But it should be said that, unlike the Netanyahu government, the IDF quickly recovered from the shock and has engaged in the war against Hamas with admirable professionalism. Commanders and soldiers in the regular army and reserves, as well as civil society organizations, all mobilized and contributed their utmost for the war effort. Retired generals Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot from the opposition in the Knesset also joined the war cabinet to help conduct the war, and equally important, to protect the state and the army from the failed decision-making of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his incompetent ministers.
In the coming days, the war cabinet must head off any efforts to chase after that elusive image of victory – a victory whose cost would be the needless deaths of additional soldiers – and set achievable goals for the IDF towards ending the war.
Israel must immediately seek a full ceasefire in exchange for an agreement to release all remaining hostages. There is no use in having IDF troops mired inside the Gaza Strip along with the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which will exact a heavy toll on Israel in the international arena.
The day after the ceasefire, Gantz and Eisenkot should issue a clear ultimatum to Netanyahu: if he continues to oppose the entry of international forces and Palestinian Authority personnel who will assume responsibility for managing the Gaza Strip, they will resign from the government and call for early elections. The ousting of Netanyahu’s government is a critical first step in the path of recovery of the country and society from the war and the events that preceded it.