Eran Etzion

The first Israel-Iran war

The prime minister is sending the IDF onto the battlefield to achieve a goal he knows very well is unachievable.
An Israeli flag flutters above the wreckage of an Israeli tank sitting on a hill in the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights and overlooking the border with Syria and the town of Quneitra, on October 18, 2017. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP)
An Israeli flag flutters above the wreckage of an Israeli tank sitting on a hill in the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights and overlooking the border with Syria and the town of Quneitra, on October 18, 2017. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP)

Do you remember (without using Google), when the last time was that Israel fought a war involving the enemy’s regular army?

The answer is 37 years ago. Yes, some 37 years have passed since the Israel Defense Forces locked horns with the Syrian army in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

In all the military campaigns waged since, including the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and the myriad “rounds” of escalation in the Gaza Strip, the IDF has been fighting against “non-state actors,” political-military organizations, the largest of which are Hezbollah and Hamas. They number tens of thousands of infantry fighters and, while they possess considerable rocket fire capabilities, they are devoid of air and armor forces.

Waging war against Iran would be an adventure of a completely different scale, the likes of which Israel has not had to deal with since the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the challenging land and air battles the IDF fought against the Egyptian military.

Iran is a regional power with global aspirations; a large country of 83 million people, which is ranked 19th in the world in terms of its geographical size (Israel ranks 153rd). Iran is also an ancient, proud, and tenacious civilization, which has occupied the same stretch of land for 5,000 years and maintains a near one million-man military that possesses significant capabilities.

Iran’s strategic endurance is particularly extensive. It was able to wage a brutal war against Iraq for eight years (1980-1988) — a war that claimed the lives of about 500,000 Iranian soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians.

War is not only a clash between countries, but also a clash between strategic cultures. In Iran’s case – a strategic culture that has evolved continuously over millennia and included the invention of the game of chess, honing what is widely considered some of the best negotiation skills in the world, and cementing a proven track record of successful takeovers of vast regions and even entire countries via a network of proxy organizations.

What strategic culture can Israel boast?

The cardinal question of any war or military campaign lies with its strategic objective — what is the purpose for which a nation decides to wage war? Who defines it, and how?

Israel has a particularly problematic track record on this subject, and despite criticism voiced for decades by state entities such as the State Comptroller’s Office and military and political planning bodies, the necessary changes in the decision-making processes and the political-strategic culture have yet to be made.

The limited campaign Israel has been waging in recent years against Iran on Syrian soil, as led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a prime example of an ongoing failure to define a strategic purpose. Netanyahu’s professed goal — “the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria” — is not feasible in the foreseeable future.

Iran has been a military presence in Syria for 30 years and even more so since the onset of the 2011 civil war. Syrian President Bashar Assad owes his regime’s survival to the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the pro-Iranian militias operating on Syrian soil – in close coordination with Russia.

Even if, theoretically, Israel were to have the IDF in its entirety engage Iran in Syria in an attempt to eradicate its presence there, we would be hard-pressed to assume the campaign would indeed culminate in the complete and long-term ejection of Iran from Syria.

The same goes for the limited aerial campaign Israel is waging in Syria’s skies, which often conflicts with the interests of Russia — the superpower reigning over Damascus — and against the backdrop of the United States’ “active disengagement” policy from the Middle East in general and from Syria in particular.

Netanyahu is aware of all of this, of course, which only underscores the depth of this systemic failure. This is a case of an Israeli prime minister who is sending the IDF onto the battlefield to achieve a goal he knows very well is unachievable.

At the same time, Netanyahu is vigorously touting his political and military “achievements” to the public, all while operating in a political vacuum of his own making. Israeli cabinet meetings have, for all intents and purposes, become a one-man show, as the prime minister is also the acting defense minister and until recently he was also the acting foreign minister.

There is no need to go into the nature of Netanyahu’s choice of interim foreign minister, or his equally strategically inexperience predecessor. Suffice to recall the significant role played by past justice ministers like Dan Meridor or Tzipi Livni in cabinet discussions about war and peace.

The political side of the cabinet table has been rendered virtually empty, except for Netanyahu’s chair. As for the professional side, the National Security Council, which is required by law to present “strategic alternatives” to the government, has become a branch of the Prime Minister’s Office, devoid of any real professional authority.

Even the Shin Bet security service and Mossad intelligence agency, whose chiefs answer directly to the prime minister and who over the years never hesitated to challenge his predecessors, seem to be treading lightly.

The Foreign Ministry, always an enfeebled body, has been sidelined to the point of irrelevance, and now has no independent professional status around the decision-making table.

The military still retains some power and independence, for obvious reasons, but the submarine scandal, the scathing state comptroller’s report on the decision-making process during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and many other reports reflect how the constant political pressure has been eroding the IDF’s professional status.

In recent months, Israel has been moving in two parallel yet equally alarming directions.

On the one hand, Netanyahu has been steadily raising the stakes, ostensibly with the aim of achieving the same strategic purpose. Expanding Israeli strikes into Iraqi territory (according to foreign media reports, including official American ones), and possibly even into Lebanese territory – for the first time since the Second Lebanon War – is not being pursued to “capitalize” on the campaign against Iran in Syria, rather as a form of “self-compensation” for the failure in this arena.

On the other hand, the continued gnawing at the Israeli system of government, the erosion of the balance of power between state authorities, and the systematic undermining of professional entities and gatekeepers are also expanding and accelerating.

The danger of crossing the line between limited and full-scale warfare between Israel and Iran is more tangible than ever. The Israeli public has the right to know what the objectives are of the Iran war – the first in Israel’s history – and it is the duty of the government and the prime minister to clearly spell them out.

What does Israel seek to achieve? Removing Iran’s forces from the entire Middle East? Changing the Iranian regime? What price would we be required to pay? What kind of American backing can Israel expect? And most importantly – what diplomatic and strategic alternatives were presented to and discussed in full by the cabinet prior to the decision that war was the best alternative?

Once the September 17 elections are over, we must insist that the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet be manned with ministers who are worthy of their positions, and that the campaign to undermine the professional bodies and gatekeepers cease immediately and be replaced with due strategic process. Otherwise, we may find that we are required to play a Middle East chess game armed with nothing but backgammon dice.

About the Author
Eran Etzion is a political entrepreneur, as well as a former senior diplomat. He served as deputy head of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister's Office. His motto is: Speak Truth to Power.
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