Operation ‘Cast Ballot’: Post mortem

As yet another military campaign ends, the IDF turns out to be, as usual, the weakest link in the chain.

Operation Cast Ballot, or as it is formally known, “Pillar of Defense,” has come to an end. Childish to the end, the Palestinians and Israelis managed to miss a ceasefire on Tuesday, as they quarreled over who would fire the last shell. The practice of announcing a ceasefire in advance, so as to make certain that all troops know of it in time and observe it, has been perverted into a competition of who can fire more in less time. Israel has been at it for at least three decades; I still remember how, in 1982, Israeli television enthusiastically reported about Israeli artillerymen making use of the last hours before the ceasefire to spread more death and destruction in Beirut.

A ceasefire has been announced, and we can officially mark Cast Ballot as a failure. It is a failure as far as Binyamin Netanyahu is concerned: he could have made it to the polls with four years of relative quiet, and he chose to end his second term with Tel Aviv being bombed (for the first time since 1991), as well as Jerusalem (first time since 1970), and a terror attack on a bus to boot, seemingly a first since 2006. As in 1997, when he ordered the botched assassination of Khaled Meshal and ended up empowering Hamas by releasing Ahmed Yassin from prison, Netanyahu – whose slogan once was “strong against Hamas” – will end yet another campaign by strengthening Hamas.

It is a failure as far as Ehud Barak, possibly the most hated man in Israeli public life, is concerned. Once more, he proved he learned nothing, and that his image as a military genius is a self-perpetuated myth. He was at it before, in Cast Lead, and he knew what happened in Lebanon; he should have known that the most important thing, before opening fire, is to have a solid exit policy, so that it can be quenched. He didn’t have any.

It is a failure as far as the Israeli economy is concerned. We’ve spent NIS 3 billion just to be where we were before it all began – ahead of early elections, with us heading to the polls because the prime minister is unwilling to expose his planned budget cuts. Now we are three billion deeper in the hole, and the Treasury has already found the solution. No, no, don’t be absurd – we wouldn’t raise the capital gains tax or corporate taxes. That would shift the burden towards the rich. Can’t have that. We’re going to hike VAT again, for the second time in less than a year. No, it won’t happen until the elections – Netanyahu and Steinitz are not that dumb. You’ll be served with the bill afterwards.

And Cast Ballot was a failure, first and foremost, for the holiest of Israeli behemoths, the IDF. It has proven itself, again, to be a blunt instrument incapable of carrying out its mission. As expected, the Air Force – which a common joke says is so different from the regular IDF that it ought to be considered a friendly foreign force – began the attacks by taking out quality targets. Then, after three days, it ran out of such targets, and the killing became much more random. First a family of 12 is extinguished; then a family of four, two of which are children; and on the last day of the operation, our brave flying death squad blows a vehicle sky-high, only to later find out it held three journalists. Oops.

This isn’t new and shouldn’t surprise anyone: That’s how it went during the last round and the one before that. The IAF has a three-day grace period, no more. And in all three conflicts, it was wasted.

The main problem is with the ground forces. They were hardly involved in the campaign. The government allowed the mobilization of 75,000 troops, 56,000 of them were actually mobilized –  and then the government didn’t dare use them. They served only as sitting ducks, deployed in open territory without much shelter. An Al Jazeera journalist noticed they were practically exposed to mortar fire, and by that observation expressed more military sense than the IDF officers who sent the troops there.

When you announce that you are mobilizing 75,000 people and then refrain from using them, you are waving an empty pistol. No one will take you seriously the next time you mobilize, and with good reason. But what could Netanyahu do with this clumsy force?

When you use ground forces in attacking a compact, densely populated region like Gaza, you have two choices: you can charge in, which means casualties. Or you can take cover, and use heavy, wild and inaccurate fire (during Cast Lead, the IDF managed to kill five of its soldiers by friendly fire – the same number lost to Hamas activity). Taking the second option leads, almost automatically, to a diplomatic defeat and a loss of the war. But the first option exists only on paper: the Israeli public is not willing to lose soldiers (the death of one soldier was much more heavily reported than the death of three civilians), and no politician will risk dozens of military funerals – and during an elections, to boot.

War is famously merely the continuation of policy by other means; but Israel preferred renting out policy to its officers. The IDF has been the prime architect of Israel’s Gaza policy, and has failed at it miserably. On the other hand, when Netanyahu asked for a  new Gaza policy, the State Comptroller found that the IDF torpedoed (!) any debate on it.

When a militia of some 400,000 people can’t dislodge a militia of some 20,000 people, even as the first force is infinitely more powerful in explosive tonnage and in its ability to deliver its artillery where it needs to be, then to call this a bleeding tie would be charitable to the larger militia. And I’m not at all sure such charity is in order.

The IDF, in short, failed Israel by being unable to bring a Gaza campaign to a satisfactory resolution while, at the same time, preventing a change of policy. For this stellar performance, we are now asked to pay even more money than it drains from us usually. It also managed to make it clear to anyone paying attention that our ground forces are out of shape.

This is the army that, they tell us, is about to take on Iran. Let’s take this a step further. Our dear prime minister, and the army as well, have been pumping up war with Iran for quite some time. The commander of the IAF is known informally as “commanding general, Iran front.” Let’s extrapolate from the IDF’s performance in the last three campaigns – 2nd Lebanon, Cast Lead and Cast Ballot – on how it will deal with Iran.

Thankfully, our ground forces won’t play much of a role. The IAF will get its three days of grace. Let’s assume it’ll manage to take out some of the more important targets. But it won’t be able to do much more than that: Teheran is much, much further away than Gaza.

The IAF failed miserably in stopping the rocket fire from Lebanon in 2006 and from Gaza in 2008-9 and 2012. This is no surprise: it also failed in doing the same when it was the PLO lobbing rockets into Israel from Lebanon in 1981. The only thing that stopped the fire was a ceasefire – which, as usual, was broken by Israel. We should reasonably assume that, particularly given its limited range of operations, the IAF will not be able to stop Iranian rockets from landing in Israel – and there’ll be plenty of them.

The Gazans have proven they can take much more than the residents of Israel can, and the stories of heroism Iranians tell themselves deal mostly not with the dismal Iraqi front, but with the survival of the awful years of the rocket wars, in the mid-1980s. I wish anyone who wants to awaken this old trauma and make Iranians hate Israel as much as their regime tells them they should all the best; just don’t tell me you’re acting responsibly.

When it comes to Gaza, Israel has some leverage. The most prominent, of course, is its ability to throttle the Strip by besieging it. Then there are the Egyptians, the Europeans and even the Turks, whose interests often mesh with those of Israel. There is no such leverage with Iran, which is already laboring under heavy sanctions as it is. In order to force it to stop firing rockets at Israel, you’ll need either an extensive air campaign or a proper, old fashioned invasion. Israel can do neither, and I fail to see Obama volunteering for yet another land war in Asia.

We’ve known that the IDF is a broken tool, harmful to its wielders, since the Second Lebanon War. The militarist hysteria which followed managed to bury this truth, and switch the blame for what was a purely military defeat from the army to the government. Then a self-proclaimed military messiah, Gabi Ashkenazi, came along, and while using his job to undermine his civilian superiors, he was serving us with heavy-laden plates of bullshit about “reconstructing the IDF.” The public was all too willing to swallow it, but anyone who was taking a closer look saw that Ashkenazi was giving us more of the same: he was preparing the IDF for yet another glorious tank campaign a la 1973. The chances that such a war will repeat itself are about as slim as those of the Polish cavalry against the German tanks. We’re in another era.

The fact that the reservists were complaining about the same problems they complained about in 2006 – lack of proper equipment, sometimes lack of food – show us just how hollow Ashkenazi’s promises were. One also wonders why the IDF deploys so many reservists, if it can neither supply them properly nor use them.

But fear not: the public will not ask embarrassing questions. This did not happen after 2006, when Hezbollah held its ground against four IDF divisions, and it certainly will not happen after a much smaller skirmish. The militaristic public will once more swear allegiance to the IDF and the troops, being blissfully unaware that this oath is what destroys the army.

The cold and merciless duty of a military force is to trade the lives of soldiers for the accomplishment of military goals. You can’t conquer the mountain unless there is a grave downhill, says the old poem; and no, bombing the mountain until its mother can’t recognize it without dental records is not a substitute, never was. The IDF likes to pretend that the inversion of the proper roles – the fact that the public prefers civilians to die and not soldiers – is the fault of the public. It conveniently ignores the fact that it was the army that decided to fortify its bases – but not towns. It also would like us to forget it intended to use Iron Dome for defending bases, not towns, and then retreated from this under public pressure.

The public demand that no soldiers be harmed is reasonable, if you consider what the usual IDF operation has become: an armed company, complete with air support, taking out less than a squad of encircled, semi-armed, Palestinian youth. Only this isn’t a battle, this is a man-hunt; and the IDF has long forgotten how to win a battle.

And, following Cast Ballot, the public will refrain from debating this. Again.

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