How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Soon after Benjamin Netanyahu began his second term as Israel’s prime minister in March 2009, he ordered the country’s military to develop a plan for a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The air force and the intelligence branch went to work immediately; according to Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, the preparations alone would ultimately cost the country nearly $3 billion.
Israel never carried out the attack, of course, and in retrospect, Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, then Israel’s defense minister, may never have seriously considered launching one. But U.S. President Barack Obama took the threat seriously enough to toughen sanctions against Iran in response. By bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, the sanctions paved the way for the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who pushed through the international agreement that has since put Iran’s nuclear program on hold for the next decade.
Since then, Israel’s security agencies have been able to refocus their attention on all the other threats that gathered during the years they were preoccupied with Iran’s nukes. In the last five years, states and borders have collapsed throughout the Middle East, militant groups such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) have conquered vast territories and drawn in large numbers of followers, and the schism between Shiites and Sunnis has turned more violent. All this turmoil has fundamentally transformed the dangers Israel now faces. The conventional threat once posed by the Syrian military has almost completely disappeared, only to be replaced by the appearance of more terrorists on another of Israel’s borders.
At the same time that the IDF must confront external threats, Israel’s internal problems are falling on its shoulders.
At the same time, since October 2015, the conflict with the Palestinians has flared up, with teenagers from the West Bank carrying out “lone wolf” knife and gun attacks. The Israeli military’s response to the violence has raised thorny questions about its code of conduct and laid bare the broader divisions—between right and left, and between religious and secular Jews—that are transforming the Israel Defense Forces and the country itself. At the same time that the IDF must confront external threats, then, Israel’s internal problems are falling on its shoulders.
Shortly before Gadi Eisenkot became the IDF’s chief of staff in February 2015, he met with Dan Meridor, a former member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet. “You’re going to command an exceptional army,” Meridor told me he told Eisenkot. “You only have one problem: there are no serious enemies left to fight.” Meridor was exaggerating, but he had a point. Israel’s traditional foes no longer pose the threat they once did.
For most of the past few decades, the IDF’s nightmare scenario was a repeat of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Syrian tanks stormed the Golan Heights and Syrian commandos captured Mount Hermon in a surprise attack. Today, after more than five years of civil war, Syria has disintegrated, and the risk of a conventional conflict with Israel has nearly vanished. In April, Israeli soldiers on Mount Hermon told me that their Syrian counterparts on the other side of the border, unable to obtain supplies, had deserted their positions more than a year earlier. Most of Syria’s tank units and artillery batteries have disbanded, and much of the country’s massive arsenal of chemical weapons, which Damascus began stockpiling in the 1970s to deter Israel, has been dismantled under international supervision.
As for the Arab countries still controlled by the authoritarian old guard, they have grown ever more interested in cooperating with Israel, albeit quietly. Egypt, Jordan, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have abandoned their past fixation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have mostly recognized that the problems they share with Israel are bigger than those that divide them: Iran and its proxies, on the one hand, and ISIS and al Qaeda, on the other. As did Israeli leaders, Saudi officials criticized the Obama administration over the nuclear deal with Iran; in recent years, Saudi Arabia has also stepped up its intelligence sharing with Israel.
The disappearance of the conventional threats to Israel’s security is not just the result of recent regional turmoil, however; it is also a product of these governments’ recognition of Israel’s military superiority. When it comes to Israel’s commanders, defense technologies, air force, and intelligence agencies, the country’s capabilities are vastly superior to those of its neighbors. Its victories in most conflicts since 1948 have made this superiority abundantly clear. Partly as a result, since 1973, Syria has mostly avoided confronting Israel directly, and Egypt and Jordan have signed peace agreements with it.
Yet considering the remaining threats to Israel’s security—militant groups—the picture grows darker. At the moment, Hezbollah and ISIS are too busy fighting each other in Syria to think much about Israel. But both groups have declared their intention to attack it in the future. Once Syria’s civil war finally ends, Hezbollah will probably need time to regroup and so will hold off on attacking Israel; ISIS will likely act on its threats sooner.
Over the last ten years, Hezbollah has amassed an arsenal of between 100,000 and 150,000 rockets and missiles. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, the group launched some 4,200 of such projectiles at Israeli towns and cities. Most of them missed, but they still killed 42 Israeli civilians and provoked a massive military response—a sign that Hezbollah had managed to exploit Israel’s extreme sensitivity to casualties. Since then, the group’s leaders have pledged to up the ante in any future conflict. Should Israel attack again, they say, they will turn Lebanese territory into a death trap for IDF forces; Israeli officials contend that Hezbollah would hit Israeli towns and infrastructure with as many as 1,500 rockets per day and launch cross-border raids on Israeli villages and military installations. Using this combination of asymmetric tactics, Hezbollah believes that it will force Israel into a stalemate—an outcome Hezbollah could then present as a victory, given the IDF’s enormous advantages.
At the beginning of this year, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, claimed that the group plans to supplement this approach with still new tactics. In the event of an Israeli attack, he promised, Hezbollah will strike Israeli nuclear sites and fire rockets at chemical storage tanks in Haifa, where much of Israel’s heavy industry is located. (Nasrallah has also claimed that Hezbollah would invade the Galilee, the Israeli region closest to the Lebanese border.) Although Hezbollah may prove too weak to deliver on such threats in the face of an all-out Israeli invasion, the group clearly poses a more serious threat than it did a few years ago. Despite the heavy casualties Hezbollah has sustained in Syria, its commanders will emerge from the conflict there with valuable combat experience that they could use against the IDF. After the Syrian civil war ends, Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons will no doubt still view Israel as the region’s major source of evil. But because the group will likely be reeling from that bloody conflict, it will probably not attack immediately; rather, it will wait months or even years for the right moment to strike.
Should Hezbollah unleash its promised barrage of rocket attacks on Israel, the mayhem would bring civilian life there to a virtual halt, putting the government under enormous public pressure to stop the attacks. To do so, it would likely send tens of thousands of ground troops deep into Lebanon and carry out aggressive air strikes against Hezbollah’s bases there. But since Hezbollah has built its bases in densely populated areas, the IDF would likely kill many Lebanese civilians in the process. The Israeli government would thus find itself in a bind, facing intense domestic demands for rapid action on the one hand and international condemnation for its tactics on the other. To make matters worse, the IDF would be unlikely to achieve a decisive victory: even under a heavy offensive, Hezbollah would still be able to fire a large number of rockets at Israel.
The Israeli government could find itself in a bind, facing intense domestic demands for rapid action on the one hand and international condemnation for its tactics on the other.
Israel’s current military leaders recognize this dilemma, but they also contend that against massive rocket fire, there would probably be no alternative to an IDF ground maneuver in Lebanon. The goal of inflicting massive military destruction on Lebanon would be to deter Hezbollah from attacking for at least a decade after the end of a potential conflict.
As for ISIS, it represents a significant threat to Israel, but it is not as dangerous as Hezbollah. ISIS has already sent some of its foreign fighters home to Europe to attack Jewish targets there and has repeatedly threatened to attack Israel from both the Egyptian and the Syrian border. It will likely try to do so soon, since doing so would give it a massive PR boost. To prepare for that possibility, the IDF has deployed more forces to both borders and strengthened its fences there; it has also stepped up intelligence gathering on the group.
The Palestinian territories, meanwhile, present their own set of problems. Since at least 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza by force the year after it won elections there, the IDF has worked closely with the Palestinian Authority, which still governs the West Bank, to counter the group. In return for the PA’s cooperation, the Israeli government has generally not intervened in the PA’s domestic affairs and has allowed the West Bank to enjoy a modest economic recovery. At the same time, more and more Israeli leaders have abandoned talk of a permanent peace and have started focusing on how to manage, rather than resolve, the conflict.
Yet Israel’s strategy has recently run into serious problems. During Israel’s 2014 military campaign against Hamas, the IDF aggressively bombed Gaza in order to stop the group’s rocket fire and destroy the tunnels it had dug under the border. Israel even sent in ground troops to kill Hamas’ fighters and attack its military infrastructure near the border with Israel. The death toll—1,483 Palestinian civilians, 722 Palestinian fighters, and 72 Israelis, 66 of them soldiers, were killed, according to the UN—led to intense Western criticism of Israel’s tactics as unnecessarily brutal.
In Gaza, the IDF faces the same dilemma as in Lebanon: stopping enemy attacks seems to require Israeli offensives that kill many civilians. Worse, it appears that another conflict with Hamas may be in the offing. Lacking the support from Egypt it once enjoyed and facing public discontent as everyday life in Gaza becomes increasingly miserable, the militant group is feeling pressured, which might encourage it to begin another round of escalation with Israel.
Not only has Israel’s military had to contend with shifting external threats; it has also had to grapple with changes in its own society. Until at least the mid-1980s, Israel saw itself as struggling for survival. Most Israeli men considered combat service a national necessity and a personal aspiration, and most women were content to serve in the IDF in noncombat support roles. For the first few decades after the Holocaust, most Israelis thought that spending time in uniform and suffering military casualties were a worthwhile price to pay for protecting the country.
Since the 1980s, however, that sentiment has diminished somewhat. Many Israelis began to disapprove of the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and to question their country’s actions in the 1982 war with Lebanon and in the first intifada, which began in 1987. Then, in the early 1990s, came the Oslo Accords, which were designed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all; at the same time, Israel deepened its security, economic, and cultural ties to the United States and some western European countries. Many Israelis became convinced that their country might finally break the pattern of seemingly endless conflict. That daydream was shattered by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s then prime minister, in 1995, and by the second intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005. Yet many Israelis retained their skepticism over the value of their country’s military actions. Israel has now become the kind of society that the military strategist Edward Luttwak might call “post-heroic”—one that is less willing to risk the lives of its young people in wars that segments of the population do not consider absolutely necessary. Some Israelis have also become less comfortable with enemy civilian deaths, in part out of concern for their country’s international reputation.
At the same time, the military’s demographic makeup has started to change. Today, only 73 percent of eligible Jewish Israeli men and 58 percent of eligible Jewish Israeli women serve in the IDF—a historic low in a country with a long-standing policy of mandatory military service for most Jews. Many of the Jewish men who don’t serve are ultra-Orthodox and non-Zionist; under a long-standing deal with the government, they are exempted from service so that they can continue their religious studies. Jewish women, meanwhile, can opt out of service simply by declaring themselves religious, even if they are Zionists and aren’t ultra-Orthodox. Such exemptions frustrate much of the secular population, especially the parents of military-age Israelis, who feel that the rules place an undue burden on those willing to serve. Since 2014, the state has required several thousand highly religious yeshiva students to enlist each year, and the students have generally complied. But popular tension over the exemptions seems set to continue.
Another major change that has occurred in recent years is the increasing reluctance of liberal secular Jews to volunteer to serve as officers and in combat units. A growing number of mostly right-wing religious Zionists have stepped in to fill these gaps, coming to dominate the ranks of the IDF’s elite combat groups. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of religious junior officers in infantry units rose from 2.5 percent to somewhere between 35 percent and 40 percent. This changing balance raises a number of potential problems. It is conceivable, for example, that units staffed by religious, right-wing Israelis might not obey an order to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The IDF dismantled such settlements during Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and during that operation, some 60 Israeli soldiers refused to take orders from their superiors; a withdrawal from the West Bank, where there are far more settlers than there were in Gaza before 2005, could pose a greater challenge. Highly religious male soldiers may also have problems interacting with their female colleagues: some have already refused to serve in mixed combat units and have demanded that women soldiers dress in “modest” uniforms. In recent years, the extent of gender segregation within IDF units and the degree to which religious soldiers should be permitted to excuse themselves from cultural activities that they consider immoral have been issues of near-constant debate in Israel; the IDF appears to be leaning toward secular approaches to such issues and has faced growing criticism from rabbis and some members of the Knesset for doing so.
Israelis have also grown more critical of the IDF’s performance, particularly in the conflict in Lebanon in 2006 and in its 2014 military campaign in Gaza; public opinion polls suggest that most Israelis believe their country ended both those conflicts in a draw. Many taxpayers now have a hard time understanding why a military with an annual budget of around $8 billion has struggled to defeat far smaller and less technologically advanced opponents such as Hamas and Hezbollah. What many of these critics don’t realize, however, is that decisive victories against such opponents are hard to achieve. Nevertheless, this gap between the public’s expectations and the military’s ability to defeat unconventional opponents could become a bigger problem should another war with Hezbollah break out, for most Israelis fail to recognize how much the group’s capabilities and ambitions have grown in recent years.
To deal with all these changes, soon after Eisenkot was appointed chief of staff, he introduced a five-year plan to streamline the Israeli military. By 2017, the IDF expects to reduce its 45,000-strong officer corps by 5,000; release tens of thousands of older, unfit, and poorly trained soldiers from its reserves; and eliminate many of the army’s aging armored brigades, some of which used 1960s-era Patton tanks until recently. The Israeli air force has unveiled plans to get rid of dozens of its 40-year-old warplanes, including some of its older F-15s and F-16s, and purchase at least two squadrons (or around 50 planes) of new F-35 fighters from the United States. Like his predecessors, Eisenkot has also pledged to invest generously in Israel’s cyberwarfare and intelligence units.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Eisenkot has acknowledged that the IDF’s technological prowess may not be enough to allow it to triumph against an unconventional enemy. To fill the gap, he has refocused the army’s training on countering guerilla-style opponents; updated the structure of its ground forces by, for example, establishing a new commando brigade; and revised its operational plans for defending Israel’s borders to prepare elite units for offensive action. Finally, Israel’s air force, army, and intelligence units are working to improve their ability to coordinate and share information in the event of a major conflict with Hezbollah.
Eisenkot increasingly finds himself at odds with many Israeli citizens, with conservative politicians, and, perhaps most important, with some of his own soldiers.
These reforms, while important, will not help the IDF address its most immediate challenge, however: the consequences of the surge in violence that broke out in Israel and the Palestinian territories last October after Jewish radicals attempted to pray on the Temple Mount—an area known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and that the Israeli government and Muslim leaders have reserved for Muslim prayer since 1967. In the intervening months, young Palestinians have carried out a string of lone-wolf attacks, ramming cars into Israeli pedestrians and soldiers or stabbing them in the streets. By early May, the assailants had killed more than 30 Israelis; the IDF, meanwhile, had killed more than 175 alleged Palestinian attackers and arrested around 2,500 more Palestinians.
So far, Israel has avoided the collective punishments, such as denying Palestinians permits to work in Israel, that it employed during the first and second intifadas. The IDF has also insisted on maintaining its cooperation with the PA’s security agencies. In the months after October, Israel’s security agencies began to foil an increasing number of attacks, mostly by monitoring social media. The PA has unveiled a campaign to dissuade high school students from joining the conflict, and in February, it started preemptively arresting potential assailants.
None of this has diminished the anxiety inside Israel, however, and the attacks have provoked hysterical and sometimes racist responses from both civilians and officials. Even Eisenkot has become a target of this vitriol: in January, for example, when he insisted that the army adhere to its rules of engagement in order to avoid unnecessary deaths, he was severely criticized, not just by right-wing backbenchers in the Knesset but also by some ministers in the governing Likud Party.
The debate turned even uglier in late March after a soldier was videotaped shooting a Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay wounded on the ground. The Israeli army charged the soldier with manslaughter. Right-wing legislators and nationalist soccer hooligans held a heated demonstration outside the military court near the southern city of Ashkelon. Posters portraying Eisenkot and then Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon as traitors appeared around the Kirya, the IDF’s Tel Aviv headquarters. But Eisenkot did not crack under the pressure: the soldier’s trial began in early May, and Eisenkot has insisted that he alone is responsible for defining the military’s rules of engagement.
Eisenkot’s deputy, Major General Yair Golan, got into even worse trouble a few days later in May, on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, when he gave a speech warning of increasingly racist and violent trends in Israeli society. By claiming that he recognized some similarities between developments in contemporary Israel and “the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany . . . 70, 80, and 90 years ago”—an allusion to the Nazi period—Golan caused a massive scandal. Right-wing ministers demanded his resignation, and Netanyahu publicly reprimanded him for “cheapen[ing] the Holocaust.” Golan will remain in office, but his chances of becoming Eisenkot’s successor in 2019 now seem diminished. (Yaalon resigned on May 20, saying that he strongly disagreed with Netanyahu’s government “on moral and professional issues.”)
All of this has left Eisenkot with two main challenges: defending the army and its code of ethics from both left- and right-wing critics and preparing it for war on several different and uncertain fronts. So far, he has managed the tasks well. But he increasingly finds himself at odds with many Israeli citizens, with conservative politicians, and, perhaps most important, with some of his own soldiers, who prefer to shoot Palestinian attackers first and ask questions later. At the very time the IDF should be retooling itself to confront a new set of external threats, it has found itself thrust into a new and uncomfortable role as one of the last gatekeepers of Israel’s democracy.