The Strategic Ability of Israel

In document Strategic logic and ability: revisiting the Arab-Israeli wars (Page 130-157)


The Israeli cabinet was formed by the Mapai Party in alliance with smaller parties (Ahdot HaAvoda and the National Religious Party) and was headed by Levi Eshkol. The contrast between his strategic conceptual ability and that of Ben-Gurion was massive.81 Eshkol had undertaken only limited military service during WWI and had been isolated from the security circle in Israel since its establishment. He was portrayed in Israel, especially when the conflict was heated in May 1967, as a weak old man with stuttering speech who lacked the qualities needed for the historic moment.

Although Eshkol did not have a strong grasp of military strategic issues, he emphasised on many occasions the need to subject military conduct and operations to international political sensitivities. In spite of the crisis and the continuing pressure from the IDF to go to war, he stated prophetically in the most serious

80 Ritchie Ovendale, The Origins of the Arab Israeli Wars (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 205. 81


meeting with his generals, “A military victory would not end the dispute because the Arabs will still be there”.82

He tried to compensate for his shortcomings in military strategy by seeking advice from Yigal Allon who was a great operational artist in 1948 and thoroughly formulated the Israeli strategic concepts in the 1950s and 1960s, at least on paper, in “The Making of Israel‟s Army”. Allon was a good reader, and broadcaster in Israel, of Liddell Hart‟s theory of an indirect approach. His account of how the 1948 operations followed this approach, albeit in its operational and tactical senses, was incorporated in late editions of Hart‟s book.83 Allon referred later to the weak theoretical base of the IDF officers‟ corps, meaning primarily in the tactical and operational areas, and recommended formal theoretical education and independent self-development for officers.84

In “The Making of Israel‟s Army”, Allon stressed the strategic necessity to avert war as far as possible, to win wars decisively and in a short time using air supremacy and armoured thrusts, and to transfer the war to the enemy‟s territory.85

Due to Israeli geostrategic sensitivities (as it was surrounded by Arabs whose artillery range covered the sensitive areas in Galilee, and had a limited strategic depth of 10 miles at some points)86, he coined a new term, albeit self-contradictory as he was aware of this charge: “anticipatory counter-attack”. Israel should set red lines and be ready to attack offensively if these lines were breached. He claimed that the


Quoted in Gluska, The Israeli Military, p. 228.

83 Liddell Hart, Strategy: The Indirect Approach (London: Penguin, 1991) p.401. 84

Allon, “A Curtain of Sand” (Hebrew) cited in Avi Kober, “What Happened to Israeli Military Thought?”,

Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol 34:5, 707-732.


Yigal Allon, The Making of Israel’s Army (London: Sphere Books, 1971) pp.69-80.

86 Michael Handel, “The Evolution of Israeli Strategy” in Williamson Murray et al, The Making of Strategy:


core of the military thinking of Israel and her allies87 was defensive strategically but offensive operationally. These red lines, which would result in an Israeli counter- attack, were: concentration of enemy forces with offensive intent, guerrilla wars not controllable by low scale retaliations, any closure of the Tiran Straits, and impending deep air attacks on Israeli territory.88

Although his strategic encapsulation was offensive and tacticized, Allon grasped the essence of strategic thinking by looking for the strategic and political effects of the use of force.

He believed in the possibility of reaching a peace agreement but, more likely, a non- aggression agreement after both the 1948 and 1956 wars, but he did not explain what went wrong to prevent this. He also perceived the qualitative gap as favouring Israel over the Arabs in the long term, which makes a defensive strategy more reasonable, albeit with a low threshold for offensive actions. He favoured conventional deterrence over nuclear, unless Israel benefited from unilateral nuclear capability, as the opponent‟s actions could not be counted upon for mutual nuclear deterrence to work.89

Nevertheless, Allon did not have broad access to strategy making in this war. Granted, he was a minister with advisory ties to Eshkol, but even Eshkol did not show willingness to formulate strategy on top of what was produced by the IDF. At one time Eshkol proposed to allot his defence portfolio to Allon, but this was not accepted. Only if Allon had been accepted as defence minister would he have had sufficient authority to guide strategy making. The only direct input he managed was as a minister of the minority party Ahdot HaAfoda who adopted a very active policy

87 Handel, “The Evolution of Israeli Strategy, p.541. Two out of Allon’s six points of casus belli were: closing the

Tiran Passage, and the deployment of other Arab forces in Jordan or the West Bank. Allon, The Making of

Israel’s Army, p.79.


Allon, The Making of Israel’s Army, pp.69-80.



from the beginning of the crisis, pushing the cabinet towards the decision to go to war, but he was not responsible for any detailed strategy.

The IDF pressed for a political leadership change by bringing Ben-Gurion, Eshkol‟s rival, into the government as Minister of Defence. In the end, a compromise was reached by establishing a government of unity in which Dayan became defence minister

Moshe Dayan, despite his legendary status in Israeli military history, had only modest qualities as an operational organiser90, let alone as a strategist, and he lacked much of the organizing ability needed for the post. Dayan‟s best quality, nevertheless, was the high esteem in which he was held and his ability to mobilize his subordinates to follow his lead.

Dayan, who did not receive any formal higher military education, showed mixed strategic conceptual ability. On the one hand, he clearly appreciated the political and strategic consequences of military operations, for example criticising the escalatory policy of the IDF that led to the crisis, and the IDF‟s underestimation of Nasser‟s intention to go to war in response. He also gave good strategic accounts of the fall of Gaza once its base in Rafah- Al Arish was stripped, of the need not to reach as far as the Suez Canal in order to avoid international pressure, and of his opposition opening a Golan front to avoid the prospect of Soviet intervention.91

On the other hand, his accounts did not show that he grasped the full strategic logic of using force to reach clear political aims that have to be enforced on the will of the enemy; neither did he demonstrate determination to impose his will on events. Dayan did not offer a strategic formula for the war, but only worked uncritically inside the well-accepted IDF strategic concepts in the Sixties.

There had been structural anomalies in Israel‟s strategic conceptual ability from 1948 to 1956 and then in 1967. Although extensive doctrinal discussions took place during


Creveld, The Sword and the Olive, p.148.



the 1950s and 1960s, there was a lack of formal means to develop and transfer strategic, or even operational, theory. Hence, the discussions ended up being practical-technical debates and did not benefit from deeper and critical thinking. Theory does not make doctrine, but it increases the general awareness of the subject and sharpens the line between important and less important issues, between what is changing and what is not. Strategic theory and its product, strategic assumptions, are essential also to give the doctrine its raison d’être and its shape and direction. As Avi Kober clearly identified, this “anti-intellectualism” in the IDF originated in the cultural bias towards practical experience that was entrenched by the cult of victorious offensives in the 1956 and, to an even greater extent, the 1967 wars.92 The attempt to establish a National Defence College in 1963 was not successful. The college did not receive the attention of the IDF elites and became a pool for the non- motivated senior military. It was closed shortly before 1967 to save expenses during an economic slowdown.93 The college was only re-established after 1973 as a response to the general condemnation of Israeli military practice before and during the 1973 war.94

If anything had changed in 1967 from the previous wars, it was the absence of Ben- Gurion‟s strategic input with his clear concepts of strategic logic and the political employment of war.95 Also, as the IDF became much more mechanised and professional, in tactical and technical terms, the sense of anti-intellectualism was strengthened not weakened. As the military elites became more specialised in narrow and sophisticated tasks, the influence of the wider operational talent of the earlier generations was weakened. Moreover, as the IDF adopted state of the art platforms and more emphasis was put on technical excellence, the conceptual

92 Avi Kober, “The Intellectual and Modern Focus in Israeli Military Thinking as Reflected in Ma'arachot Articles

1948-2000,” Armed Forces & Society (Vol 30, Issue 1, Fall 2003) pp. 141-160.


Creveld, The Sword and the Olive, p.189.

94 Creveld, The Sword and the Olive, p. 251. 95


elements in thinking strategically were lost to what Handel called in describing the IDF: “capital-intensive warfare”96.

The direct consequence of this loss in strategic ability was clear. No real attempt was made to reconsider the long-term strategic consequences of using the acts of war comprehensively, nor was there an overview of the pattern of military decisions. Yet, some strategic considerations were made, albeit not comprehensively. Although this can be interpreted to some extent by the anomalous institutional trend skewed to the military, both military and cabinet debates showed little interest in asking strategic questions let alone attempting to answer them. All this gives the Israeli Conceptual

tier low marks.


With the demise of Ben-Gurion who had emphasised the instrumentalism of the military to policy97, the institutional structure of strategy making lost much of the legacy of civilian supremacy and strong political leadership. However, in spite of the IDF‟s strong ties with the „Old Man‟, it welcomed Eshkol as he had a much more relaxed grip over the military.98

A conflict of opinions between the military and political elites peaked before the 1967 War as the military always pushed for offensives. Firstly, they pushed for a military offensive against the Syrian front, ranging from wide-scale retaliatory attacks to overthrowing the regime, which would have required an invasion and the possible occupation of Damascus. The military always exceeded the limits set by Eshkol in retaliatory events, as in Samau in 1966 and in the aerial battle in April 1967.99

96 Handel, “The Evolution of Israeli Strategy”, p. 172. 97

Yoram Peri, Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy (Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2006) pp. 23-25.


Gluska, The Israeli Military, pp. 14-21.



Then, when the conflict with Egypt was building, the military pushed for action as early as 15 May 1967. Between then and the government‟s decision to go to war, both informally on 2 June1967, and formally on 4 June 1967, the military pressured the politicians by various means to unleash Israel‟s military might without investigating the political objectives thoroughly.

Although the IDF kept itself subordinated to the political elites, even in the harshest rift between 24 May and 2 June 1967, when the government ordered the military to wait for the completion of diplomatic manoeuvres, the military pushed by legitimate or illegitimate means to the extent that the fear of a military coup came to Ben- Gurion‟s infuriated notice and forced him to reconsider his opposition to a national unity government, and this led to the appointment of Dayan as defence minister.100 How could the military achieve this pressure, and how could this have affected the functional criteria of institutionalising strategy making?

The military had a much stronger hold on the decision-making framework than in any other democracy, and it used the stream of conflict itself to strengthen its position. The Chief of Staff, Rabin, had semi-ministerial status until his breakdown on 24May 1967, and he attended all governmental security meetings, accompanying mostly the heads of military intelligence and operations. This, in addition to the absence of any civilian-led platform for thorough discussions on strategy making, the absence of any civilian-led platform for collecting and developing genuine intelligence reports, the weakness of Eshkol and most of his cabinet members in military affairs (other than Allon, Carmel and later Dayan, who were strongly in support of IDF activism) and the stronger public base of the military in general, all led to more compliance with what the military wished for, especially in the critical window.

This compliance was reached by “smooth” ways of persuasion and manipulating intelligence reports and by harsh ways too. The aggressive speeches of the general staff in their meetings with Eshkol on 23 and 28 May and 1 June 1967 and with the



government on 2 June, which challenged the credibility of the government101, the furious mood of the armed forces due to the government waiting for a diplomatic pathway, and the military‟s participation in inflaming public feelings against the government, and Eshkol specifically, and their attempts to get Dayan into office were some examples.

Because of this it is helpful to survey how these abnormal relational settings, in a generally democratic political structure, affected the functional criteria in both positive and negative ways.

Information sharing was good in general, but the process had two failings which

enabled manipulation of the flow of intelligence on the enemy‟s capabilities and intentions. On the other hand information on the IDF‟s capabilities was generally accurate.

Firstly, all sources of intelligence were collected and reviewed by military intelligence which was under the Chief of Staff. This created a “legitimate” way to affect decision making by shaping the perception of political elites. With such a military-centric intelligence system, introducing military biases was inevitable and involuntary; however the military manipulated the intelligence reports intentionally to draw a more compelling picture.

For example, Aron Yariv, the chief of military intelligence, in his meetings with Eshkol and the government, stressed Nasser‟s clearly offensive intentions and the grave outcomes if he was given time to act in Sinai without a military response from Israel. When these reports were shown to the Americans during the visits of both Aba-Eban and then Yariv, they were considered an exaggeration of Nasser‟s intentions and capabilities. What American and Israeli reports agreed, nevertheless, was the likely favourable outcome for the IDF in any future military operation against Arab forces, separately or combined.102


Full accounts were transmitted in Gluska, The Israeli Military, pp.153-154, 160-168, 196-202 & 223-231.



The second fault in the intelligence system was the trend of Israeli military intelligence to suggest policies and strategies based on its estimate of the enemy‟s intentions. Suggesting specific policy/strategy, however, is outside the capability of intelligence organisations and is strategically counterproductive, especially in democratic settings. Intelligence, specifically military intelligence, does not have the political legitimacy or efficiency to monitor and control all forms of state capabilities, diplomatic, economic, domestic, external etc. Hence, any attempt by military intelligence alone to formulate a policy and strategy is inefficient. Also, conveying the militarized inclination towards policy and strategy without it being critically scrutinized by a higher political judgement contradicts the logic of strategy making. Nevertheless, what military and other intelligence should do is to draw potential scenarios and modify the intelligence strategy and agenda in order to deal with these scenarios beforehand, by providing the available information required for decisions in such scenarios. 103

If the government adopts a specific policy/strategy, intelligence may prioritize its agenda but should not give up completely the consideration of other scenarios. Nor should it advocate a specific policy/strategy. If intelligence does push for a specific strategy, or having a solid strategic assumption “concept”, information can also be gathered in a way to consolidate these assumptions rather than challenging them. This meticulous process is what could draw a sharp line between policy-driven versus policy-relevant intelligence.104

What happened in Israeli practice in three major events prior to May 1967, during the crisis window before the 1967 War, and before the 1973 War was a cognitive deadlock when the intelligence generated some concepts which dominated policy/strategy making due to their high position in the system. The intelligence

103 A discussion with Mr John Morrison on the side-line of “Strategy: Theory and Practice” seminar, Reading

University, June 2013.



community then kept feeding these concepts with compatible evidences while distorting or ignoring other opposing evidences.105

The second functional criterion, collective critical thinking, was severely affected. Although military and political meetings adopted the norm of critical thinking, they did that in isolation, not collectively and, in the case of the military, were cognitively attached to fixed strategic concept and offensive attitudes.

There was no institutional forum to deal thoroughly with policy/strategy questions which could include people from both civilian and military backgrounds in a free critical environment.106 Although the cabinet and its ministerial security committee could have constituted this platform, both fell short of its requirements. The majority of members lacked military knowledge, apart from the IDF representatives or those who were aligned with them, and this made IDF assumptions immune to criticism. Also, neither of these bodies, whose meetings were held infrequently and were occupied mostly with non-policy non-strategic questions, discussed the points of the political aims of the war or the military strategy and operational plans. This was, in part, caused by the time and background limits, but it was caused also by the en

Berra status which represented this war as a war of “no choice”; it was an aim in

itself, and everything more than the decision to go to war was left to the military.107 Eshkol was presented informally with the Karadom plan at his personal meeting with Rabin on 22 May, and Dayan only knew about the actual Nakhshonim plan when he came into the office.108


Chaim Herzog, War of Atonement: The Inside Story of the Yom Kippur War (Oxford: Casemate, 2010) pp.40- 55; Uri Bar-Joseph, The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and its Sources (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005) pp. 45-53.

106 Gluska, The Israeli Military. 107

Creveld, The Sword and the Olive, pp.125-126.



The authorization of political elites to take political and strategic decisions was accepted by the military with two reservations, in addition to the pressure on politicians by the military to go to war:109

First, political decisions were restricted to the question of whether or not to go to

In document Strategic logic and ability: revisiting the Arab-Israeli wars (Page 130-157)