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The myth of Israeli strategic genius

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The botched Israeli naval commando raid on the Gaza Freedom flotilla has a lot of people scratching their heads. How could Israel have made such an ill-advised decision to try to storm the ship the Mavi Marmara with 600 peace activists on board, which in the best of circumstances could only have ended in a public relations disaster? Once it did make that decision, why did members of the much vaunted Israel Defense Forces naval commandos Shayetet 13 conduct the assault itself in such an inept fashion virtually guaranteeing their humiliation and the loss of life? 

These questions are only puzzling because most of us have bought the myth that the Jewish state has an unbroken record of strategic brilliance and military success going back at least to 1948. Typical is the argument by three U.S. Air Force Officers in a paper they wrote in 2000 for the National Defense University in which they held up Israeli national security decision-making as epitomizing Clausewitz’s ideal of a seamless link between tactical and strategic brilliance. 

This myth persists in part because most people here are unfamiliar with the New Historians of Israel who systematically challenge many of the cherished misconceptions of the official history that sustain this myth. But it also survives because it is fostered by some supporters of Israel who use it to deflect criticism of particular Israeli government policies (“who knows better than Israelis what they need to ensure their security”) and to encourage the Israelization of American foreign policy (“after 9/11, we’re all Israelis now”).

But a cleared-eyed look at Israeli strategic decision-making and military performance since 1948, puts the Gaza Freedom Flotilla debacle and other recent Israeli blunders in a context which suggests we should not have been surprised at all it turned out as badly as it did. (For much more on this see my Power and Military Effectiveness)

On the strategic level, a good argument can be made, and indeed Oxford historian Avi Shlaim makes it, that Israel’s collusion with the Hashemite regime in Jordan before 1948 with the objective of thwarting the establishment of an independent Palestinian State at partition, provoked, or at least provided the rationale for, the invasions by the other Arab states during the War of Independence in an effort to undo this “deal” made at the expense of the Palestinians. Israel’s strategic blunder in joining France and Britain in the ill-fated Suez War of 1956, which united America and the Soviet Union in opposition, hardly merits mention.

Israeli claims, most recently advanced by the Jewish state’s current Ambassador to the U.S. in his book about the Six Day War of 1967, that the IDF struck first to preempt an Arab attack are questionable. But even if we concede their validity, Israel’s decision to go beyond destroying Arab military forces and seize territory was certainly unnecessary. Indeed, the origin of Israel’s strategic dilemma today is the settlement enterprise, which constitutes the most serious existential threat to Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon had the twin goals of destroying the PLO and installing a pro-Israel Christian regime there to change the strategic environment in the region in the Jewish state’s favor. What Israel got instead was an 18 year festering sore and the creation of one of its most potent enemies – Hizbollah – along its northern border.

Having learned nothing after those 18 years, Israel invaded again in 2006 with the objective of teaching Hizbollah a lesson. Instead, the result was an inconclusive military campaign and a public relations disaster. Ditto, Gaza in 2008. Given this track record, what is most amazing that Israel is not ranked among such strategic dunderheads as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany!

Our image of the IDF as a tactically highly proficient force is more grounded in reality, but still overdrawn. The enduring image of the War of Independence is of a Jewish David, armed literally with a sling, fighting an Arab Goliath, equipped with the most advanced weapons, and sometimes lead, at least in Leon Uris’ fevered imagination, by refuges from the Nazi Wehrmacht.

But this has things backwards: The Jewish forces in the war were better armed than most of the Arabs (save for the British-led Arab Legion in Jordan which hardly participated in it) thanks to arms from the Soviet Bloc and the United States. By the end of the war, the IDF substantially outnumbered the Arabs. By the way, the best students of the Blitzkrieg were in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, not the Arab capitals.

Since Israel took on the Egypt with the British and the French, this campaign hardly demonstrates anything more than the truism that greater numbers increase the chance of victory. The poster-child for Israel military prowess is the Six Day War, in which the Israelis did achieve some spectacular military victories. But the Jewish state was not a fighting a monolithic Arab coalition, and so could operate again Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in sequence, rather than simultaneously, further undermining the David/Goliath myth.

If 1967 is the high-water mark for the myth, 1973 is when the tide started going out. Israeli tactics for defending occupied Sinai and Golan were defective and their much-touted intelligence services were caught napping on Yom Kippur. Only Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the intervention of the United States (Seymour Hersh argues that the two were not unrelated in his Samson Option) prevented a costly stalemate.

Finally, Israel’s military performance in Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 and Gaza in 2008 were hardly text book examples of tactical prowess.

Given that, the interesting question is what explains Israeli strategic and military ineptitude, particularly in recent years? The conventional view is that the Occupation, which involved the IDF in police and other non-military operations, blunted the sharp edge of the IDF’s sword. I find that explanation compelling in explaining the tactical erosion of the IDF’s capabilities.

John Mearsheimer makes a different argument, which I will call the Moral Hazard of the Israel Lobby. His logic, which I find helpful for understanding Israel’s strategic missteps, is that the promise of unquestioning U.S. support has, like the government bailout of the Savings and Loan industry, fostered a culture of risk-taking within the Israeli political elite (as it did among U.S. bankers) that leads them to ignore the costs and risks of the questionable strategic decisions they have made, particularly since 1967.

Placed in this historical context, the strategic debacle and tactical shortcomings of Israel’s military operations against the Gaza blockade runners seem to be par for the course rather than anything surprising. So next time any one tells you that the Israelis know best about their, or our, security, keep in mind their real track record.

Michael Desch

Michael Desch is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He was the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University from 2004 through 2008.

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