INTO THE FRAY: The deadly detriments of a doctrine of defense


Every round of violence, in which the results are not a clear-cut IDF victory is, in the eyes of Israel’s enemies, another nail in the coffin of the Zionist entity.” – Veteran war correspondent, Ron Ben Yishai, June 1, 2019.

…the ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive. Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.—Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”, circa 400 BCE

I am, of course, aware that I used this exact same excerpt in commencing my recent column, Cracks in the Dome?, in which I warned of the disturbing defects of adopting an essentially defensive doctrine in facing the escalating threat from Gaza.

However, I make little apology for its re-use, as it is equally—arguably more—fitting for this week’s topic.

Disturbing indications

Indeed, for a considerable time, I have cautioned against Israel’s excessive reliance on defensive measures and its operational derivative of “managing the conflict”—see for example “Conflict management”: The collapse of a concept, and The ruinous results of “conflict management”.

Significantly, recent media reports have provided disquieting signs of corroborating the emergence of at least three perils of which I have warned repeatedly in recent years—and, although some may be inclined to downplay their significance, this would be a grave error.

For while they are, admittedly, very preliminary—indeed, even embryonic—indications of potential future developments, the compelling rationale for their evolution into phenomena far more substantial is too grave to be disregarded.

Readers will doubtless recall that I have warned incessantly that Israel’s current policy:

(a) will eventually result in the erosion of the Jewish population in the Negev;

(b) will allow the Gazan terror groups to devise methods to neutralize the efficacy of the billion dollar anti-tunnel barrier encircling the Gaza Strip—particularly the use of drones; and
(c) because of its innate reticence to engage in a large-scale decisive offensive against the Gazan terrorist entity, is causing Israel to continually back away from conflicts that it can win, risking backing itself into a conflict that it cannot win—or win only at ruinous cost.

Arabs in Gaza or Jews in the Negev?

With regard to the Jewish presence in the Negev, I have argued constantly that unless the violence in Gaza is terminated permanently, Israel may well face the grim prospect of the Negev being depopulated by Jews, who, unable to raise families in adequately secure conditions, will abandon the region for safer locations– see Israel’s stark option: Arabs in Gaza or Jews in Negev.

Last week, reinforcing this very caveat, the media gave high profile coverage to the decision of almost a dozen families in the Gaza border area to leave their homes in the wake of the recent outbreak of violence—see for example here, here and here.

This of course, is only a tiny number, especially given the significant increase in the Jewish population in the South since the end of the 2014 Protective Edge operation. Despite this, the decision led some to express fear that it may well spark the prelude to a larger scale exodus from areas under regular menace of rocket fire and incendiary balloons.

After all, it is not an isolated expression of disaffection by residents of the region. To the contrary, it reflects a wider—and seemingly growing—sentiment of frustration and impatience with life under the ongoing threat from Gaza. Indeed, there is clearly rising exasperation with the government’s impotence in responding to the challenge posed by the continual terror attacks, together with its manifest failure to discharge its most basic duty—providing security to its citizens. Clearly, there should be little wonder at the mounting unwillingness to endure the evermore onerous conditions in which they are being forced to live, with their local economy being devastated—particularly tourism and agriculture—and their livelihoods drastically diminished, with the constant disruption of daily life, and with the ongoing danger to their lives and their families…

The danger of drones

With regard to the almost one billion dollar anti-tunnel barrier currently being constructed to encircle the Gaza Strip, I have forecast time and again that the Gazans will devise methods to neutralize it—or at least greatly reduce its efficacy.

Thus, last year I observed: “Every time the Gazan terrorists developed some offensive tactic, Israel devised some countermeasure that was designed to thwart the attacks, rather than prevent them being launched in the first place.”

Detailing this sequence of measures and counter measures, I wrote: “Thus, suicide attacks resulted in a security fence and secured crossings; which led to the development of enhanced rocket and missile capabilities; which lead to the development of the multimillion dollar Iron Dome; which led to the burrowing of an array of underground attack tunnels; which led to the construction of a billion dollar subterranean barrier; which led to the use of incendiary kites and balloons that have reduced much of the rural South, adjacent to the Gaza border, to blackened charcoal”.

Finally, I cautioned: “…it takes little imagination to envisage the deployment of future modes of Judeocidal assault on the Jewish state and its citizens—such as a possible drone swarm carrying explosive—perhaps even some non-conventional—charges, to be detonated on, or over, some luckless Jewish community.”

Drones (cont.)

Barely two weeks ago, a widely reported incident seemed to indicate that the drone threat is becoming increasingly operational, when the Islamic Jihad released footage allegedly showing a drone attacking an Israeli tank.

The fact that the attack caused little damage should be of scant comfort. Indeed, echoing my earlier concern, one source noted that while: “Security agencies will overlook the minor impact of the device depicted in the video, [they] will instead focus on the implied threat that a larger or more ominous payload would represent.”

Indeed, the Gazan –based terror groups have shown impressive ingenuity in devising, enhancing and honing their aggressive capabilities to assault the Jewish state. Today they have achieved abilities that would have appeared inconceivable in 2005, when Israel unilaterally abandoned the area—and had anyone then predicted Israel would be facing the threat it faces today, he undoubtedly would have been dismissed as an unrealistic scaremonger.

Significantly, the drone threat is gradually receiving increased attention in the public discourse. For example, last month Haaretz ran a piece highlighting Hamas’s focus on drone development with Iranian help.

Thus, although Hamas’s drone program suffered a severe setback with the assassinations in Tunisia (2016) and Malaysia (2018) of leading engineers involved in its development, it is hardly beyond the limits of plausibility that Israel will have to contend with the specter of a swarm of drones, armed with biological or chemical payloads, directed at nearby Israeli communities—rendering the billion dollar anti-tunnel barrier entirely moot. For those who might dismiss this as implausibly alarmist – see here, and here.

“Why Israel will not win the next war”

Of course, while such an attack on a rural community may not constitute a devastating strategic blow, physically, it certainly is likely to constitutes a grave strategic blow to national morale—which leads into the third topic for discussion: Israel’s reluctance to launch a large-scale offensive aimed, not at punishing terror attacks but at preempting them; not at thwarting them, but at preventing them from being launched in the first place.

It is this reluctance that is causing Israel to continually back away from conflicts that it can win, until it backs itself into a conflict that it cannot win or win only at ruinous cost.

In this regard, a stern caveat (in Hebrew) appeared recently in the highly trafficked Ynet web site, entitled Why we will not win the next war .Written by Ron Ben Yishai, one of Israel’s most authoritative military correspondents, it catalogued the reasons preventing the IDF from adopting a strategy of decisive victory over its terrorist adversaries and warned of the grave consequences thereof.

Among the reasons for the relative flaccidity of the IDF’s approach, Ben Yishai enumerates the undue involvement of politicians and the media in security affairs; overly harsh censure of field commanders for operational errors, disproportionate sensitivity to abductions; and excessive interference from soldiers’ parents in determining the conditions of their sons’/daughters’ IDF service.

Emasculating the IDF operational capacity

But, according to Ben Yishai, perhaps the most severe inhibiting factor on the IDF strategy is the hypersensitivity to casualties, which has made avoiding them more important than achieving operational objectives.

According to Ben Yishai, these factors create a situation in which “Israel’s civil society is slowing but surely emasculating the operational ability, the initiative and innovativeness of ]IDF[ field commanders”.

All of this has led to the IDF abandoning the notion of a decisive victory as an attainable objective. Ben Yishai describes the grave implications of this: “Without a clear victory, both physical and psychological, in the battle field, deterrence is eroded, which shortens the period of time until the next conflict occurs…[T]he strategic damage in this is the perception of [Israeli] weakness it conveys to the countries in the region…and gives our enemies the hope that in the long run they will be able to wipe Israel off the map as a sovereign state.”

He warns: “Every round of violence in which the results are not a clear-cut Israeli victory is, in their eyes, another nail in the coffin of the Zionist entity.”

In Ben Yishai’s  assessment: “In order to defeat—once and for all—this strategy of attrition, and the motivation that drives it, Israel must achieve military and psychological victory in every future conflict…until our enemies despair of the possibility of destroying us by means of attrition.

However, to achieve such a victory both “Israeli civil society and the media must adopt a more realistic and less emotionally sensitive attitude to casualties…and restore the value of executing the mission to the top of military priorities.”

“Attack is the secret of defense…”

I began this column with an excerpt from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”  It is, thus, perhaps fitting to end it with one: “Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack.”

It is precisely in this spirit that Ben Yishai concludes his article: “Every…military clash with any enemy in the area must end with an unequivocal IDF victory. Our very existential interest—as a nation and as a people—mandates that we get rid of everything and anything that impedes attaining this objective”.

Doubtless, Sun Tzu would approve.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

June 17, 2019 | 4 Comments »

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4 Comments / 4 Comments

  1. Israel is a follower who thought of incedrey balloons? Israel still has no answer. Next week, month those balloons will be yesterday’s news. WHY?
    The new balloon attack will start, balloons filled with nerve gas, local farmers will shoot them down releasing the gas etc. will this nerve gas only react when breathed? or will it act when in contact with the skin? could the ebola virus or hiv be transmitted this way? Israel’s leaders gov are reactors not actionerys, as they did in 67.
    I hope I am proved wrong.

  2. One of Dr. Sherman’s most brilliant and incisive columns. Everything he writes about Israel’s dysfunctional politics creating a dysfunctional military unable to mount effective military operations. is spot on. He references an article in the Hebrew edition of Ynetnews by Israeli military correspondent Ron Ben-Yiahai, who maintains that public opinion and meddling politicians now make it impossible for Israel to win wars. IYnetnews declined to publish it in its English edition. Do they think that the outside world will lnot learn about Ben-Yishai’s conclusions if they don’t publish this article in English?

    See also an interesting article by anti-Israel Israeli journalist Gilad Atzmon, publish in a pro-Palestine blog. Atzmon argues that Israel cannot win an all-out war today, not only for the reasons given by Ben-Yishai and Dr. Sherman, but also because the IDF does not have sufficient manpower and adequate up-to-date weaponry to defeat its enemies. He says this is the real reason Bibi has declined to go to war with Hamas and Hezbollah.

    While Atzmon’s pro-Arab, anti-Israel bias makes him an unreliable source, in this instance the testimony of former IDF ombudman Brick (can’t remember his forst name) fully supports Atzmon’s analysis. He says that his repeated efforts to warn the military top brass and the Knesset that the IDF is too understaffed, under equipped and insufficiently trained to fight full-scale war today against increasingly well-armed enemies, have been ignored by them. But perhaps Bibi agrees with Brick’s assessment, and that’s why he is appeasing Hamas.

    Also see an article in a pro-Arab blog by pro-Arab Israeli journalist Gilad Atzmon, who argues that in addition to th

  3. Makes sense to me. The rest of the world will blame Israel even if it is just defending itself, so what’s the difference?