Virtually every time top military figures have departed from their field of expertise & ventured into one where they have none (politics), they have–almost invariably—been disastrously wrong.
[Israeli] security experts didn’t anticipate one major event in the Middle East in the past 50 years.
– Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Saban Forum, December 2014
Allow me to begin this week’s column with three somewhat lengthy excerpts from an essay, “Israel: The Case for Defensible Borders,” published in the influential journal Foreign Affairs.
‘One does not have to be a military expert…’
The selected excerpts relate to three topics:
(a) The indefensible pre-1967 lines “One does not have to be a military expert to easily identify the critical defects of the armistice lines that existed until June 4, 1967. A considerable part of these lines is without any topographical security value; and, of no less importance, the lines fail to provide Israel with the essential minimum of strategic depth. The gravest problem is on the eastern boundary, where the entire width of the coastal plain varies between 10 and 15 miles, where the main centers of Israel’s population, including Tel Aviv and its suburbs, are situated, and where the situation of Jerusalem is especially perilous…”
(b) The territorial imperative in the age of modern longrange weaponry “The purpose of defensible borders… is to provide Israel with the requisite minimal strategic depth, as well as lines which have topographical strategic significance… there are some who would claim that in an era of modern technological development such factors are valueless [and] that the appearance of ground-to-ground missiles, supersonic fighter-bombers, and other sophisticated instruments of modern warfare has canceled out the importance of strategic depth and topographical barriers… this argument is certainly invalid regarding Israel… where the opposite is true… the innovations and sophistication in weaponry… not only fail to weaken the value of strategic depth and natural barriers but in fact enhance their importance.
This is even more true given Israel’s difficult geographic position… Precisely because of dramatic developments in conventional weaponry the significance of territorial barriers and strategic depth has increased.”
(c) The perilous asymmetry of the Arab-Israeli conflict “… the Arab states can permit themselves a series of military defeats while Israel cannot afford to lose a single war… a military defeat of Israel would mean the physical extinction of a large part of its population and the political elimination of the Jewish state…. To lose a single war is to lose everything…
Shimon Peres concurred
Some readers may be surprised to learn that these words were not written by a “right-wing, radical extremist” or a pro-settlement ideologue. They were written by none other than the iconic Labor moderate Yigal Allon, in October 1976, who was deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
During the War of Independence Allon commanded the Palmah, the strike force of the Hagana underground.
His views were not uncommon in mainstream Israeli politics at the time – barely three years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Indeed, they were endorsed – point by point – by the defense minister in the government in which Allon served as foreign minister, Shimon Peres.
Peres, too, emphasized the importance of defensible borders and strategic depth, and stipulated why the enhanced range, firepower and mobility of modern armaments increase rather than decrease the significance of these elements: “In 1948, it may have been possible to defend the thin waist of Israel’s most densely populated area, when the most formidable weapon used by both sides was the cannon of limited mobility and limited fire-power… In the 20th century, with the development of the rapid mobility of armies, the defensive importance of territorial expanse has increased…”
Like Allon, he warned of the dire consequences if these strategic imperatives were forgone: “… the lack of minimal territorial expanse places a country in a position of an absolute lack of deterrence. This in itself constitutes almost compulsive temptation to attack Israel from all directions… Without a border which affords security, a country is doomed to destruction in war.”
More pertinent than ever
Although Peres has since reneged on his eminently sober analysis, tragically validating virtually all his previous caveats as to the crucial importance of territory, the military rationale outlined so lucidly by Allon and Peres is more pertinent than ever before.
The procurement by our enemies of tens of thousands of high-trajectory weapons, and the development of tunneling techniques – neither of which were remotely conceived of in 1976 – together with the ascent of savage Islamist extremist elements across Arab world, have only enhanced the dangers entailed in relinquishing territory to Arab control.
Time and time again, disregard for the predicted consequences of conceding land in the hope for peace has vindicated those dire predictions – frequently articulated by those who later ignored them.
Every time Israel has withdrawn from territory, whether by bilateral agreement or by unilateral evacuation, sooner or later that territory has become a platform for carrying out lethal attacks against Israel and Israelis.
Only where Israel has retained its hold over territory – such as on the Golan – has catastrophe been avoided. This happy circumstance, however, is far more the fortuitous result of Arab intransigence than of prudent Israeli policy.
On numerous occasions the Israeli public has been assured that both Assad Sr. and Assad Jr. were worthy partners with whom a durable peace deal could be cut. The current carnage in Syria underscores just how hopelessly ill-advised such assessments proved to be.
Disastrously detrimental role
This brings me to the central theme of this column: the troubling role that senior military and security figures have played on entering Israeli politics, which has, almost uniformly, proved disastrous – both for the country and for themselves.
Indeed, over the past few decades a considerable number of former generals and heads of intelligence services have been chewed up and unceremoniously spat out by the Israeli political system with their reputations mauled.
The most recent victim is former chief of General Staff and defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who was forced into humiliating political retirement when it was clear that his Kadima list (once the largest in the Knesset) would not get enough votes to pass the threshold for election, and no other party was prepared to offer him a realistic spot in its list. Not far behind him is another Kadima refugee, the unfortunate Avi Dichter, formerly head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and public security minister. If the polls are to be credited, Dichter, who lost a demeaning and protracted recount of ballots slips cast in the recent internal election in the Likud (which he had joined, deserted and rejoined) is unlikely to be in the next Knesset in March – despite his stellar career in security.
Mofaz and Dichter have been preceded by a long procession of top military and intelligence personalities who have entered the political arena to great fanfare and, after having – to be charitable – un-illustrious careers, have been forced to leave, without making any noteworthy contribution. In more than a few instances, after causing considerable damage.
Other names that spring to mind in the lengthy list of unimpressive performances by the top brass in politics include Maj.-Gen. (res.) Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad; V.-Adm. (res.) Ami Ayalon, former commander of the navy and Dichter’s predecessor as head of the Shin Bet; the lackluster former chief of General Staff the late Lt.-Gen. (res.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak; and the hapless Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Mordechai, former head of Southern Command and later defense minister, who left public life under a cloud of sexual scandal.
And then of course there was Lt.-Gen. (res.) Ehud Barak, former chief of General Staff, billed as “Israel’s most decorated soldier,” portrayed as a rare combination of James Bond, Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein, and heralded as the great hope of Israeli politics. It was a hope that was soon dashed. Swept along by the halo of his military glory, Barak was soon elected Prime minister and disaster followed hard on the heels of disaster. He was forced out of office after barely a year and a half, but not before ordering the ignominious flight of the IDF from South Lebanon in 2000, surrendering the area to Hezbollah; consenting – or rather capitulating – to the far-reaching concessions of the Clinton Parameters; and failing to contain the violence of the second intifada that erupted despite his willingness to accept virtually all Palestinian demands.
Embarrassing errors, absurd assessments
Perhaps the most vivid vindication of the admonition by Naftali Bennett in the introductory excerpt in which he rebuked Israeli “security experts” for not correctly anticipating any major event for decades is provided by two of Israel’s best-known military heroes: Yitzhak Rabin, chief of General Staff in 1967 when the IDF swept to spectacular victory in the Six Day War; and Arik Sharon, who is credited with turning the tide of the 1973 Yom Kippur War with his daring crossing of the Suez Canal.
For all their achievements in the military sphere, Rabin and Sharon were responsible for the implementation for two of the most disastrous political decisions in the recent history of the nation: the Oslo process (Rabin) and the Gaza disengagement (Sharon).
To gauge the severity of their political misjudgment, consider these assessments: In a July 1995 interview, Rabin disdainfully dismissed the concern of his political opponents regarding the perils of the Oslo process on which he had embarked: “The nightmare stories of the Likud are well known. After all, they promised Katyusha rockets from Gaza as well. For a year, Gaza has been largely under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. There has not been a single Katyusha rocket. Nor will there be any Katyushas.”
In a Knesset address on October 25, 2004, roughly a year prior to the disengagement from Gaza, Ariel Sharon proclaimed: “I am firmly convinced and truly believe that this disengagement… will be appreciated by those near and far, reduce animosity, break through boycotts and sieges and advance us along the path of peace with the Palestinians and our other neighbors.”
Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth, their errors of judgment could not have been more embarrassing, their assessments of events more absurd.
Political speculation vs military evaluation
The historical record is unequivocally clear. Virtually every time top military figures have departed from their field of expertise (the security) and ventured into one where they have none (politics); virtually every time they strayed from evaluating the military parameters to speculating as to the political outcomes; virtually every time they have subordinated their professional discipline to their political ambitions, they have been disastrously wrong.
Take for example the pronouncements of previous chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, on the Golan and the prospects of making a deal with Basher Assad. Ashkenazi estimated that by ceding the Golan to Assad, Syria could be coaxed away from its alliance with Iran and affiliate itself with a moderate grouping of nations. Ashkenazi was quoted in Haaretz (November 13, 2009) as stating: “Syria is not lost. Assad is Western educated and is not a religious man. He can still join a moderate grouping.”
Askhenazi’s appallingly inaccurate assessment of Israel’s adversaries is particularly disturbing. After all, before his appointment as chief of General Staff, much of his 40-year military career was spent in the IDF’s Northern Command, including as its commander. One must, therefore, presume that a large portion of his time was devoted to evaluating the Syrian threat, and to familiarizing himself with the nature of the Syrian military dictatorship.
The fact that his appraisal was so wildly erroneous should serve as a salutary warning to anyone who feels that a military background bestows any inherent advantage in assessing political developments.
Caveat emptor – or rather voter
This warning is particularly pertinent for the upcoming election, in which two “new” generals will undoubtedly play a crucial role, both during the campaigning, and subsequently in an attempt to influence policy. These are Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, who is the designated candidate of the perversely named “Zionist Union” for the post of defense minister, and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant of the newly constituted Koolanu party.
Both have come out with alarming statements on how to approach some of Israel’s crucial security issues – particularly with regard to the Palestinian problem – which fly in the face of logical reasoning and empirical fact. Restrictions of time and space preclude a full analysis of their proposed folly here, but in the near future (next week, subject to breaking news) I will devote a full column to it.
In any case, their proposals should be treated with circumspect suspicion. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, it ain’t a swan, even if a decorated general insists it is.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (www.strategicisrael.org).