50 years ago, the Yom Kippur War was sparked by Operation Badr, an offensive meant to breach the border on the Suez Canal, orchestrated by Egyptian Chief of Staff Saad El-Shazly under the direct orders of President Anwar Sadat. This strategic move was Egypt’s response to its prior military failures against Israel in the Six-Day War and the War of Attrition. Recognizing that a complete military defeat of Israel was unfeasible, Egypt’s tactical objective shifted. They instead aimed to penetrate a 10-kilometer zone, hoping to undermine the IDF’s sense of invincibility gained from the Six-Day War, thereby paving the way to conduct diplomatic negotiations from a stronger position. This strategy was a calculated attempt to change the dynamic of their ongoing conflict with Israel through the use of military leverage. Yet again did the words of Carl von Clausewitz, father of modern miliary theory, that “War is merely a continuation of policy by other means,” resonate with the people of Israel.
In assessing the motives behind Hamas’ October 7th attacks, we must revisit these very same fundamental military and political principles. Hamas’ objective wasn’t merely the destruction of Israel, but rather, just like Sadat and El-Shazly, to embarrass it and gain strategic leverage. Hamas sought to emerge from the conflict as Israel’s primary adversary, surpassing even Hezbollah, aiming for significant post-conflict gains like lifting the blockade, establishing maritime and air ports, and possibly even securing UN recognition. Instead, this strategy backfired. Hamas anticipated initiating limited breaches of Israel’s defenses, intending to capture or kill dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians, resulting in another cycle of conflict. However, the unexpected scale of their success and Israel’s unprecedented military and intelligence failures compelled Israel to radically shift its strategy. Rather than trying to merely maintain the attritional status quo, Israel set its sights on the complete dismantlement of Hamas’ long-standing reign of terror.
It’s crucial to acknowledge that the conclusion of the war and the concurrent dismantlement of Hamas’ military capabilities are merely the first steps towards establishing a new political landscape. Unfortunately, a lack of creativity seems to plague the Israeli and American political arenas, where the only proposed alternative for Gaza’s governance is the Palestinian Authority. However, discerning observers recognize that the PA is regarded as both too weak a governing body by the Palestinians and as overly hostile by the Israelis. Therefore, imposing its rule over Gaza is unlikely to alter the existing dynamics significantly, and would most likely result in a disastrous conclusion to the ongoing military efforts.
History is ripe with cases in which military triumphs did not equate to political success. Take, for instance, the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. American forces, initially caught off-guard, ultimately dealt a significant blow to Soviet-backed North Vietnam. However, this military triumph didn’t translate into a diplomatic victory. As historian Victor Davis Hanson points out, the military accomplishment was undercut by negative domestic public opinion and governmental indecision in the U.S., leading to years of diplomatic impasse. During this period, American troops continued to fall in tactical battles, fighting without a coherent overarching strategy in service to a decisive victory. This example serves well to remind us that with an absence of clear and decisive diplomatic goals, military success is an ultimately fruitless endeavor.
The overarching consensus that is emerging across the political spectrum is that the key to decisively impacting our Palestinian adversaries lies in inflicting a strong blow to their inherent sense of honor. Military victories must be converted into palpable psychological setbacks. The manifestation of such a defeat could range from a “humbling” surrender akin to the Treaty of Versailles to the reestablishment of Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip. The specific strategy may still be up for debate, but the core principle remains; without Palestinian acceptance of its unequivocal defeat, a sustainable political resolution that meets Israel’s security requirements is unattainable.
The question arises of whether Israeli leaders fully grasp the critical nature of the current circumstances. Engaging in negotiations with Hamas amidst ongoing conflict might be inevitable, but Israel needs to approach these talks with utmost caution. The primary diplomatic objective should be clear: decisively dismantling Hamas in a manner that imprints a sense of overwhelming defeat in the Palestinian psyche. Such a strategy is pivotal to achieving the long-sought political milestone of reestablishing a sense of security for the citizens of Israel, while hopefully cautioning against future attacks.
The Watchdog Falls Asleep Once Again
The Israeli Defense Forces have long discussed being prepared for conflicts fought on dual fronts. However, when the moment of action arrived on October 7th, preparations fell short. Though seldom openly discussed, it is widely acknowledged that Israel’s restraint from launching a northern offensive at the outset of the war was influenced not only by American diplomatic pressure, but also, more significantly, by a sincere failure of operational capability.
In the past two decades, the IDF’s guiding principle has been the belief that definitive victory in asymmetric warfare is unattainable. This conception has shaped their cautionary approach to conflicts with terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, leading to short, targeted engagements aimed primarily at situational improvement, rather than outright extermination. This strategy influenced the IDF’s tactical evolution, especially following the Second Lebanon War, most notably in its reduction of traditional armored brigades in favor of enhanced precision counter-fire systems and bolstering of elite, specialized units such as the Commando Brigade and the Multi-Dimensional Unit. Dr. Omer Dostri discussed these developments in detail in his article “Victory is Achieved Through Ground Maneuver,” published in Hashiloach Journal two years ago.
One critical takeaway from recent events is the need for a significant expansion of the maneuvering forces, as well as a complete restock, and perhaps even an overall increase in munitions and missile stockpiles. Following the war’s conclusion, Israel’s national priorities need to make a substantial shift. Currently, Israel dedicates about 4.5% of its GDP to defense, equivalent to around 80 billion shekels. This figure is significantly higher than the U.S., which spends 3.5%, and China, at 1.5%. Post-war, the Israeli military budget may need to rise to between 5.5 and 6% of the GDP, or roughly 120 billion shekels, which equates to nearly a quarter of the national budget. However, the solution goes beyond just increased spending. The military will also have to streamline its operations and optimize its critical capabilities in order to more effectively meet future challenges.
A change of this scale in national defense spending will undoubtedly have broad economic implications, particularly on government expenditures. It will necessitate the public’s acceptance of significant reductions in other areas, and will doubtless require steadfast and reliable leadership capable of managing the anticipated backlash. Unfortunately, as of now, there seems to be a lack of awareness among key Israeli leaders, including finance minister Bezalel Smotrich and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, regarding the severity of the situation. They appear to underestimate the extent of post-war military investment needed for the IDF’s revitalization, and the inevitable fiscal cuts that must accompany it.
The Litani River as a Forward Line of Defense
There are three key truths we must remember in pursuit of a long-term resolution to the military crisis on Israel’s northern front. The first is that the northern population of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike will return to their homes with no imminent threat from missile fire or ground invasion. The second is that under U.N Resolution 1701 Hezbollah will have to retreat north of the Litani and surrender its weapons. Third, if these two conditions are not met in the immediate future, Israel will be forced into a major military offensive, that will only culminate in the relocation of the border to the Litani river, and the inevitable move of the hostile Lebanese population north of the new border.
As it becomes increasingly unlikely that the U.N will act on Resolution 1701, Israel’s leadership is gradually coming to the conclusion that the question is no longer if, but when.
A version of this essay was first published in the Jerusalem Post 01.01.24
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