Has the IDF Earned the Support of the Israeli Public? An Interim Assessment of the IDF’s Performance in Operation Cast Lead

By January 4, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 54

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The current Gaza operation offers the IDF an opportunity to repair at least some of the damage caused to the image and reputation of the Force by its less-than-stellar performance during the Second Lebanon War. Here is an interim, and mixed, assessment of the IDF’s performance thus far in three spheres: (a) public communications; (b) treatment of reservists; and (c) performance of the Rear Command.

Operation Cast Lead is aimed at punishing the Hamas for its indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilian targets. But it also has several ancillary aims, of which surely the most important is the restoration of the Israeli public’s confidence in the quality of the IDF’s senior command.

In this sense, the current operation in the Gaza region can be considered a “second round” of the fighting that took place in the Lebanon in the summer of 2006. It offers the IDF high command an opportunity to repair at least some of the damage caused to the image and reputation of the Force by its less than stellar performance during the second Lebanon War.

As the IDF begins to enter Gaza on the ground, it can already be asked: To what extent has that opportunity been successfully exploited, and what are the chances that Operation Cast Lead can indeed help the IDF to regain the sort of public acclaim that it once enjoyed?

Specifically, the IDF must be judged in terms of its handling, thus far, of three spheres: (a) public communications; (b) treatment of reservists; and (c) performance of the Rear Command.

Opening Considerations

This interim audit must begin by noting that, this time around, the public atmosphere with respect to the opening of IDF operations is considerably more supportive than was the case in 2006. After all, the second Lebanon War was ignited by a disgraceful display of military ineptitude – the ambush of a far too nonchalant Israeli patrol along the northern border, which was itself preceded by the ignominy of the capture of Gilad Shalit. This background served to create an impression that the IDF’s retaliatory strikes in the summer of 2006 owed far more to an instinctive outburst of blind rage and frustration than to a process of protracted consideration and careful planning.

Operation Cast Lead is clearly in a different category. It was launched after a lengthy period in which Israel and its armed forces exercised remarkable constraint whilst also issuing several warnings that military patience has its limits. At a tactical level, moreover, it was the Israelis who this time round managed to wrong-foot their enemies, who were attacked at an unexpected moment.

Equally noteworthy are the differences in the leadership styles evinced in the opening stages of the two campaigns. In 2006, it was not just the politicians (Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Peretz, neither of whom had any prior experience of senior military command) who flooded the airwaves with a torrent of bombastic rhetoric as soon as the fighting started. So too did the Chief of Staff, Major-General Dan Chalutz, the Chief of Staff who had swaggered his way into the office of Chief of Staff just a few months earlier, and who in August 2006 bragged that the Air Force could, by itself, bring about “a decision” in a matter of hours – a promise that backfired almost the minute it was made.

Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the present Chief of Staff projects a very different image. A product of the old IDF infantry tradition, Ashkenazi has spent most of the past year quietly getting the Force back to basics. Once he had received the green light to launch Cast Lead, he immediately warned the Israeli public not to harbor any illusions. A campaign in Gaza, especially a ground campaign, he cautioned, could be protracted and costly. Thus far, he seems to have struck precisely the right note.

Israeli society is experienced and mature enough to appreciate that the Hamas rocket attacks cannot be stopped by just one lightening blow – however powerfully it may be delivered. Neither can the resort to force, by itself, solve the fundamentals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or fundamentally alter the contours of Israel’s strategic environment. Claims to the contrary are likely to generate nothing but derision.

Whether or not Ashkenazi will be able to build on these favorable foundations, and use Operation Cast Lead as a lever to further bolster the IDF’s public standing, largely depends of course on how the operation now unfolds.

As in all wars, the likelihood of fate playing a role can never be discounted. The domestic national consensus that currently supports IDF conduct overall could crumble overnight were a bomb launched by an Israeli Air Force drone to accidentally fall on a hospital in Gaza overflowing with injured patients, or were a young IDF tank commander to feel it necessary to open fire on a mob of frantic Palestinians who, driven crazy by the repeated air attacks, rush to cross the border into Israel.

But not everything depends upon chance. As the events of 2006 showed, the tone of Israeli public attitudes towards the armed forces also reflect the steps taken by the IDF to manage its relations with the society that it is sworn to defend.

In retrospect, three specific spheres of IDF activity seem in this context to have been particularly influential: (a) its handling of public communications; (b) its treatment of reservists; and (c) the performance of the Rear Command.

Although Operation Cast Lead is still unfolding, here is an attempt at an interim assessment of the IDF’s performance in each of those three spheres.

Public Communications

For several decades now, the IDF’s Spokesman’s Unit (Dover Tzahal) has justifiably been considered the Achilles heel of the Israeli military apparatus. Quite simply, it has been charged, the IDF has proved inept at media relations and at using the means that modern technology has made available in order to communicate its version of events to both the foreign and domestic republic.

Operation Cast Lead provides considerable evidence that such might no longer the case. Absent from this operation, for instance, have been the military news conferences that were almost a daily ritual during the 2006 War – and which in the last resort provided intrusive correspondents with an opportunity to show off their debating skills against somewhat hapless senior generals. Instead, the IDF has adopted a much more sophisticated approach, distancing commanders from personal confrontations with the media whilst at the same time becoming the very first national armed force in history to present the information that it wishes the world to see on a state of the art YouTube site http://uk.youtube.com/idfnadesk

As David Byers of the London Times pointed out in a January 1 column, the IDF’s exploitation of this medium has already had an immediate impact. “Hamas”, he writes, “has produced nothing to rival the organization and sophistication of Israel’s PR war.”

Equally encouraging has been the absence of “leaks” by senior commanders via their mobile telephones to individual news reporters of their choice. In 2006, by the time General Chalutz twigged the extent of this phenomenon, it was too late. All he could do was ask for a print-out of the calls that his officers had made over the past month. Ashkenazi has been much cleverer – and has simply banned the use of mobile telephones, by all ranks, altogether.

Use of Reservists

Overall, reservists are the most numerous component of Israel’s military manpower complement. But they are almost its most sensitive segment, since they bestride the delicate boundary between the civilian and military spheres of Israeli life. Reservists, therefore, cannot be treated in the same manner as other soldiers, whether conscripts or regulars. Precisely because reservists are civilians who are only temporarily in uniform they are in a position to demand that their services be used with particular economy and efficiency.

Commanders in the 2006 Lebanon War totally failed to appreciate that situation. Having mobilized a relatively large number of reservists, they then wasted the resources at their disposal. The principal complaint voiced by reservists in post-war debriefings was the feeling that no one in command quite knew what to do with them – not surprisingly, considering that it had been years since many of them had even been called up for training exercises.

Hence, like the Grand Old Duke of York’s men, on several nights running they found themselves being uselessly marched to the top of a hill in Lebanon and then, the next morning, marched down again. Given – again – the ubiquity of the mobile phone, reports of those meanderings (whose folly magnified which each telling) inevitably seeped back home to the families of the reservists concerned, thereby further tainting the IDF’s image in the public eye.

That lesson, too, seems to have been learnt. For one thing, thus far the IDF has asked for only a comparatively limited number of reservists to be called up, focusing on select groups of specialists in specific military occupations. More importantly, the signs are that they will not be employed in the wasteful manner that characterized operations in 2006. Rather they will be encouraged to show how much their skills have improved in the past couple of years, principally thanks to Ashkenazi’s insistence on more rigorous adherence to reserve training schedules.

Performance of the Rear Command

Ever since the Iraqi “Scud” missile attacks of 1991, the Israeli public has had no need of experts in security studies to tell it that the traditional distinctions between “front” and “rear” no longer apply. The IDF, too, recognized that the arc of its military responsibilities had expanded to include the provision of adequate protection for Israel’s urban population, and to that end established a Rear Command (Pikud Oref).

But for all the lip service paid to the need to defend the rear, in 2006 the performance of the Pikud Oref fell far short of expectations. Partly because it was for years starved by the Ministry of Defense of budgets, and partly because it had itself failed to develop the required expertise and doctrine, the Pikud could provide very little assistance at all to the inhabitants of the Galilee who were subjected to daily missile barrages during the course of the fighting. The State Ombudsman, who in 2007 conducted a special enquiry into the subject, spoke in terms of “a national disgrace.”

In this sphere, it is not at all clear that future investigations of Operation Cast Lead will have very much different to say. A week into the operation, some major conurbations within target range of Hamas strikes still lacked sirens (e.g. parts of Beer Sheva); elsewhere, it was belatedly discovered that shelters had either been appropriated for mother uses (e.g. Ashdod and Netivot) or were almost non-existent (e.g. Rahat).

The most important danger in this situation is that it might cause unnecessary loss of life. In the longer term, however, it threatens to have even more insidious effects. Long gone are the days when wars are won and lost on a battlefield contested by conventional forces. In a-symmetrical wars of the sort in which the IDF is presently engaged, outcomes of conflicts are determined by factors that the British military historian Sir Michael Howard famously termed “the forgotten dimensions of strategy”: society’s willingness to endure suffering and pain and by the military’s ability to help minimize the effects of enemy action.

That being the case, one of the prime functions of the armed forces is to ensure that their “rear” is as well provided for as are the personnel in uniform, who are serving at the “front”. It is still far too early to tell whether the IDF has absorbed that teaching as well as it seems to have learned from the other operational mistakes that were made in 2006.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Stuart A. Cohen

Prof. Stuart A. Cohen is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a former senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.