Setting the Scene – Choosing the Proper Strategic Challenge
The first step in formulating a strategy is often to adequately define the precise challenge that we are seeking to address. This is particularly true when dealing with problems that have multiple aspects, as each of these aspects may warrant the employment of a different strategy. For instance, the United States might have had two very different strategies in Vietnam, had it defined the challenge as an attempt to block Soviet expansionism in South East Asia (the Domino Effect), or had it defined the problem as an internal struggle between two Vietnamese political forces in the context of Vietnam’s pursuit of self-determination. Turning to the subject matter of this article, Hezbollah and Hamas pose an assortment of challenges for Israel, and in formulating its strategies, Israel should first decide which derivatives of the problem it seeks to address.
Hezbollah is a genuine grassroots Lebanese Shiite political party and a significant stakeholder in the Lebanese government. It constitutes the municipal and regional government in parts of South Lebanon, an economic group, a charity, a religious sect, an education system and a social movement. It is also a criminal enterprise engaged in drug trafficking, money laundering and blackmail. It is a terror organization with a global reach, a local ethnic militia and one of the world’s largest rocket forces. Hezbollah, with a ballistic force greater than that of most industrialized nations, can deliver continuous strategic blows that many NATO-members could not.
Iran supplies, finances and trains Hezbollah’s rocket echelon, and has a significant (but non-exclusive) say over its operational command, in the pursuit of Iran’s own strategic interests. Iran considers this rocket force as a sort of forward deployment of its own Revolutionary Guard Corps, with the role of deterring and restraining Israel from taking action against Iran. It would allow Iran to retaliate against Israel if attacked, and its potential intensity and severity could allow Hezbollah to force Israel to engage in a South Lebanese conflict and to draw Israel’s attention and resources away from other efforts. The rocket force could possibly exhaust Israel, and, given Israel’s size and lack of redundancies, it could also, in the future, potentially paralyze Israel.
Hamas is a grassroots Palestinian political party, and the de facto government of the Gaza Strip (a “state”, in a sense). It is an Arab Sunni religious faction with pan-Arab and pan-Sunni inclinations. It too is a charity, an education system and a social movement. It is also Gaza’s police force, a local militia, a terror organization and a rocket force. Due to the Israeli-Egyptian joint blockade on Gaza, Hamas is still lagging behind Hezbollah in its high trajectory capabilities, yet its rockets can reach Israeli civilian and military infrastructure and even Tel Aviv.
Hamas is not an Iranian proxy, at least not yet, but Iran is the foreign power with the highest degree of influence over Hamas. Iran is Hamas’ main political backer, prime financier and (almost) exclusive arms supplier. Given enough time for current political and armament trends to run their full course, Hamas will eventually become a complementary rocket force to that of Hezbollah.
The Chosen Challenge and Israeli National Objectives
If what occurs in Lebanon stayed in Lebanon, Israel would have little interest in it. After all, Israel does not want much from Lebanon strategically. However, Hezbollah poses a variety of challenges to Israel. It is destabilizing and restraining the Lebanese government and de-monopolizing the use of force by the Lebanese Army, over which it exercises increasing influence. It is prolonging the four decade long trend of Lebanese sectarian violence, and perpetuating the conditions which draw the country into a near failed-state reality. Often, such internal Lebanese pressures are released by using violence against Israel. But the greatest challenge of Hezbollah to Israel is not Lebanese-related (or even Syrian-related) but Iranian-related: the fact that in some respects Hezbollah is a forward deployment of Iran’s rocket force, enabling Iran to have a continuous high intensity strategic attack capability against Israel. And while Iran benefits from the use of a proxy carrying out deniable operations along a de facto shared border with Israel, Israel must carry out complex long-range operations to reach Iran.
Even without the Iranian angle, Israel has an inherent interest in Hamas and Gaza. Hamas challenges the PLO as well as polarizing Palestinian society, and is less influenced by restraining international forces, yet no resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible without dealing with the Hamas and Gaza problems. However, one direct and severe aspect of the Hamas challenge is Iran’s attempt to arm it with rockets and possibly use it for its own strategic purposes. Taken together, it can be deduced that Iran is attempting to position two notional “unsinkable aircraft carriers” around Israel, South Lebanon and Gaza, in order to create a favorable asymmetric military strategic balance of power.
When deciding what Israel’s national objectives are in this respect, we should first chose the perspective from which to look at the problem. Indeed, Israel may deduce from the circumstances a variety of potential national objectives. These could include reaching a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace, or cutting a deal with the PLO on Gaza, or having a pro-Western government in Lebanon, or merely deferring the next round of violence for as long as possible, or even fighting crime. However, in the scope of this article the focus will be on the buildup of the Iran-sponsored rocket threat. Needless to say, this is a severe adverse development for Israel, and Israel may legitimately define it as a national objective to dismantle or at least contain the threat. While Israel has never perfected the articulation of its national objectives, such a proposition is not inconsistent with occasional statements made by Israeli leaders over the years.
Israeli Grand Strategy
Once a national objective has been distilled from the circumstances, the next step is to decide how we should apply all national means of power to its achievement. The framework for the application of all disciplines of national power toward a certain goal may be called a “grand strategy”. The supremacy of the political world over the military one, and the proposition that war is essentially a political phenomenon, not a military one, means that the central line of the grand strategy must be a political strategy. Military strategy must therefore logically be subordinate to political grand strategy.
So what is Israel’s main political idea vis-à-vis the dismantling or containment of the Iran-sponsored rockets threat from Lebanon and Gaza? Israel has never articulated one, and, as will be elaborated below, its actions are hardly consistent with any such idea.
A grand strategy is not something improvised simply at the outbreak of war, but a continuous effort spanning periods of armed conflict and the cessation thereof, with violent and non-violent means applied synergistically and in a mutually-supportive way. However, we do not know what the Israeli grand strategy toward Hezbollah is. It has not declared a policy, and during the current ceasefire we can hardly identify a coherent application of Israeli non-violent national means toward addressing the Hezbollah problem. Likewise, when violence does erupt, such as in the 2006 conflict, it is difficult to conclude that force was used in a manner consistent with any serious political idea. The Olmert government sent the Israel Defense Forces to “defeat” Hezbollah and create “a better reality” for Israel, without guiding the military as to what was the core political idea for the Second Lebanon War and how the application of violence could contribute to the realization of that political idea.
Outlining a hypothetical illustration of what Israel’s grand strategy might have been illustrates the point: Hezbollah thrives on the status quo in which, on the one hand, the Lebanese government is weak and cannot enforce its sovereignty and will on Hezbollah, and, on the other hand, the Lebanese government is viable enough to be regarded by the West as an asset and an ally to which the West offers protection. For Hezbollah, there is a golden zone in which the Lebanese government is feeble and incapable but still regarded as existent and legitimate. This limits Israel’s freedom of action against the Lebanese state and allows Hezbollah to maintain and benefit from its seemingly non-state status. Israel might therefore, have adopted a grand strategy of refusing to accept Hezbollah’s golden zone, and asserting that the Lebanese government should either be effective or collapse.
Israel might insist that the Lebanese government should take credible steps to re-monopolize the possession of heavy weapons, or else Israel will forcibly tilt the current Lebanese order out of balance. This may indeed push Lebanon deeper into Hezbollah’s hands, but at least Hezbollah will have to overtly assume state-like responsibilities. The Lebanese state will lose the protection offered to it by the West, and Israel’s freedom of action will be broadened. Such a grand strategy is very different and arguably more feasible than the American one in Iraq and Afghanistan: while the United States took upon itself the task of nation building, changing the nature of Iraq and Afghanistan and the imposition of a new, friendly government; the above-mentioned grand strategy is about exposing the true nature of Lebanon – the way the things to a great extent already are – and forcing the opponent to assume state-like responsibilities. This way, the opponent loses much of its competitive advances and its freedom of action narrows.
The adoption of such a hypothetical example for a grand strategy will give Israeli diplomats something to work with: they can start a candid dialogue with Israel’s allies, quietly exchange views with the Egyptians and Saudis, and even engage in discrete but tough discourse with the non-Shiites in the Lebanese government. If or when war erupts, the existence of an articulated political strategy provides a rationale for the application of force. Instead of merely servicing target lists and chasing each and every stashed rocket launcher out of an endless inventory, the IDF can in such circumstances form a coherent military strategy, leading to the planning of clear campaign themes, that will allow the composition of operational plans that actually service a desired political idea. Given the political directive of pushing the fragile Lebanese political system out of balance, military planners know what to do.
One may take issue with the specific example of a grand strategy that has been presented, which admittedly is not fully developed in this article. Yet it cannot be argued that some sort of grand strategy is not necessary. Without it, peace time is not being used to promote national interest or to set the scene for future military operations; and the use of force in war time is directionless, almost random.
Similarly, Israeli officials have not articulated what they want with regard to the Hamas government in Gaza. Does Israel want to topple the Hamas administration? Does it want the PLO to recapture Gaza? Does it want to apply a “divide and rule” policy, dealing with the PLO in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza? Does it want to keep Gaza as a living showcase demonstrating what happens when the Palestinians are left to run their own affairs? Is Gaza a useful display of the outcome of an Israeli withdrawal? Is the current situation convenient for Israel, since Gaza is also a threat to Egypt and places Israel and Egypt in a de facto alliance? Without knowing what the main Israeli political idea vis-à-vis Gaza is, we cannot form a political or military strategy. Hence, we do not know what part the rockets play in the puzzle, and in what way force should be used, if at all.
Israeli Military Operations do not Add Up to a Strategy
The most significant Israeli operation against Hezbollah in recent times was, of course, the Second Lebanon War. One of the War’s declared objectives was to remove the Hezbollah rocket threat and the UN Security Council resolution that ended the war, Resolution 1701, deals extensively with the disarmament of Hezbollah and the prevention of further arm shipments to it. This, seemingly at least, disproves the argument made in this article. A closer look reveals that it actually validates it.
First, the Second Lebanon War unintentionally escalated out of an event that, while being tragic to those directly involved, lacked strategic importance: a cross-border Hezbollah ambush of an IDF patrol. “What ifs” are always tricky, but given the raison d’être of the Olmert government it is unlikely that it would have taken the initiative and launched a military operation of its own accord if it had not have been for Hezbollah’s miscalculated provocation.
Second, when Olmert dispatched the IDF to battle, he did not spell out clear actionable and achievable strategic objectives. He did not even decide if Israel was engaged in a local retaliation, a limited operation or a full-scale war. When the IDF had a good day, Olmert developed an appetite for more such days. And when the IDF had a bad day, Olmert wanted to turn the tide before exiting the conflict. One day led to another and an extensive, yet directionless, military operation began to accumulate. Some of Olmert’s rhetoric regarding objectives was developed later as the conflict rolled on, and without the backing of compatible military action that would enable progress.
Thirdly, Israel’s experience with failed international security guarantees is extensive, to the point where, in an Israeli defense subtext, the delegation of a mission from the IDF to an international force operating under a UN mandate is an implicit admission that the mission will never be carried out. Indeed, it is under the current UN Resolution and the deployment of UN forces in Lebanon that Hezbollah underwent its largest rocket buildup ever.
According to official and unconfirmed reports Israel has also taken action against arm shipments to Hezbollah (or against related personnel) half a dozen times since the end of the Second Lebanon War. Does this imply the existence of a strategy? Hardly, seems to be the answer.
First, Israel acted against such shipments and personnel on an occasional basis. It acted in a small number of cases and looked the other way in most instances. Unsurprisingly, these sporadic operations did not have a substantive effect on rocket deliveries to Hezbollah; neither on will nor on capability.
Second, while Israel acted infrequently at the specific shipment level, it chose to ignore the bigger strategic picture. There is a fast track of air shipments from Iran to Syria and then via land to Lebanon, and this freeway has been used to transfer tens of thousands of rockets in the past four years. Israel has never tried to deal with it at the strategic level. For example, it never tried to use strategic levers against Syria with the intent of halting the phenomenon altogether.
A similarly disappointing reality exists in Gaza. Once Hamas came to power in 2006 Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza, and swayed the Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia) to impose an embargo on Hamas. It seemed as if Israel was attempting to bring down the Hamas government. This, nonetheless, never materialized.
The most significant military operation against Hamas in recent times was, of course, the 2008 Operation Cast Lead. But once again, an Olmert government sent the IDF to battle without clarifying what the main political idea of the operation was, what were the achievable actionable objectives, and how should the military operation support a political idea. The issue of rockets was always rooted in the texts, but the fact is that while all the rockets found their way to Gaza via tunnels dug under the border town of Rafah, the IDF was not ordered to capture or even operate in this town. The Israel Air Force attacked some but not all, of the known tunnels. And while Egypt agreed to enhance its border enforcement and even obtained international assistance for this goal, Cast Lead ended without any effective, lasting political or military achievement against the Rafah tunnels, which continue to operate today.
Since Cast Lead, the IAF has attacked a handful of Rafah tunnels on numerous occasions. But all of these attacks were in retaliation to other actions taken by Hamas, and were directed at a small number of tunnels out of the many known ones. Israel never took the strategic initiative, never attempted to attack all known tunnels, never attempted to recapture the Rafah border area, and never came up with an indirect or a non-violent idea of how to stop rocket smuggling. Similarly to the case of Hezbollah, official and unofficial reports attribute to Israel various long range and overseas operations against arm shipments and involved personnel, but, again, these were sporadic and demonstrate the absence of a strategy more than its existence.
Ironically, perhaps the nearest thing to a viable strategy (or at least a component thereof) was Israel’s operation against the Turkish flotilla that, while being a public relations disaster, ended with an effective Israeli assertion that it will inspect all vessels heading to Gaza – an assertion that was eventually acquiesced to by most of the West.
Between Strategy and Limitations of Power
Writing articles such as this, which suggest that Israel should adopt a consistent strategy and rigorously enforce it, is easy. Being at the helm of a small country and operating under serious constraints and limitations of power creates a much more complex reality than that portrayed in such articles.
In the years leading to the Second Lebanon War, Israel did not really have a strategy toward the buildup of Hezbollah’s rocket force. The approach was called “Containment”, which was a code word for being clueless and doing nothing. The Winograd Committee that investigated the war’s shortcomings found that Containment was inadequate and illegitimate. The Committee may have got it wrong. Containment resulted in adverse strategic consequences, it was not elegant and lacked strategic “magic dust”, but it was realistic. Did the Committee seriously expect Israel to attack Hezbollah out of the blue, occupy significant parts of Lebanon for an extended period and clear them of rockets? And if so, what would happen after Israel eventually withdrew? Wouldn’t Iran rearm Hezbollah? Or did the Committee expect Israel to launch an attack against Hezbollah every few years, on each occasion that the organization was about to accumulate a critical mass of rockets? Moreover, if the Committee had brilliant indirect or political ideas as to how to prevent the buildup of Hezbollah’s rocket force without the need to launch unprovoked major operations every few years, why didn’t it make specific suggestions? Or could it get away with simply decreeing that “someone” should come up with a brilliant idea that the Committee itself could not think of?
Admittedly, Israel does not have a serious strategy to stop Iran from positioning rockets on its borders; and this challenge remains to be addressed. Yet strategy is not only about forming abstract ideas; it is about executing them in the real world, given actual diplomatic, economic and political constraints, and about being sensible regarding the limitations of power. Then again, being realistic is not a justification for being as bewildered as a deer on a highway at night, blinded by an approaching truck’s lights. A golden path must be found.