On July 12, 2011, the Saban Center at Brookings hosted a policy discussion moderated by Saban Center Director Kenneth Pollack. The session focused on the security challenges facing Israel and the changing nature of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule, so speakers are not identified by name.
One speaker began by enumerating three major security issues that Israel must confront: Iran and its nuclear program, the evolving nature of threats to Israel, and the Arab Spring. On the first issue, the speaker stressed the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities and said that everything short of war must be done to prevent this from happening. The speaker argued that sanctions are currently the best course of action, but they may soon prove to be too weak. Therefore, a credible military option must remain on the table and not be just a statement. The speaker reminded the audience that Iranian nuclear weapons would change the entire balance of power in the Middle East and affect the security of many countries in the region and throughout the world. For this reason, the speaker said, if military force will not be used, stronger sanctions are needed.
The speaker continued by saying that over the last four decades, the challenge to Israel’s military has changed. Israeli soldiers once traveled to clearly recognized battlefronts and fought conventional armies. But today, there are no clear battle zones and combatants are often difficult to differentiate from civilians. In the past, the biggest threat to Israel was losing territory in a battle against Syria. Today, however, the biggest danger is not a loss of territory, but rather rockets from Lebanon and Gaza that can hit the entire country. Still, the speaker said, Syria remains a threat, and so a balance must be struck between asymmetric warfare and conventional challenges. A participant noted that because Israel has been successful in creating a deterrent force, the last major war took place thirty-eight years ago and all operations since have been military campaigns. This deterrent force is why Hizballah has not fired a shot in five years; most of what is taking place between Israel and Hizballah is a war of words with the goal of de-legitimization, a struggle the participant believed Israel is losing.
The speaker said that the Arab Spring has shown that the autocratic governments in the Middle East are not sustainable. However, there will be an extended period of uncertainty before democratic governments emerge, marked by a period of protracted struggle between supporters of the current regimes and those in favor of change. Islamist forces may exert influence and governments similar to Turkey or Hamas may emerge.
The speaker stressed the importance of resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because the peace process is critical to Israel’s security. While bilateral talks would be best, the speaker said that there is a lack of confidence in both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The second speaker began by outlining the IDF’s capabilities, noting that that the IDF has as many active ground forces as the French Army and more manpower than the British military. It has ten times as many main battle tanks and twice as many planes as the French, despite a budget only half the size, making Israel a formidable military force. The speaker said the IDF is the model of a very modern, effective, conscript-based military, possibly comparable only to the Singapore Armed Forces, which is not battle-tested.
Having been influenced by military traditions that come from the British, Soviets, Germans, Americans, and its own early-history underground armies, as well as homegrown ideas, the IDF is an institution that is capable of learning and adapting quickly. Throughout its history, it has exhibited a distinct pattern of ruthlessly learning from its mistakes and developing new tactics to confront problems. Armor tactics, urban combat, unmanned aerial vehicle use, surface-to-surface missile defense, and targeted killings have all been refined by the IDF.
The speaker went on to discuss the issue of the percentage of the eligible population that is actually being conscripted into the IDF. Currently, only 65 percent of eighteen-year-olds are in the military, a figure that is expected to drop to under 50 percent in the next twelve years. One speaker suggested creating a national or civil service program to address the growing tension between those who do and do not serve, but argued a military draft is necessary for the IDF to get the quality of soldiers it needs.
One participant addressed Hizballah and Hamas, saying that these two groups are building up their capabilities and looking to acquire rockets with the range to hit Tel Aviv. In building their capabilities in this way, it is becoming harder for them to hide and they are becoming more like real armies, increasing their signature and making it easier to engage them with intelligence and airpower. In the same vein, both groups have acquired territory and so are no longer non-state actors; they are now accountable to their populations, who want jobs and not war. A participant insisted that the long-range missiles are not yet a threat, as 90 percent of the stockpiles are still short-range, imprecise rockets.
The lesson of the 2006 Lebanon war, a speaker said, is that the IDF’s training should always be geared toward large operations, which can be scaled down if need be. Because thirty-three days of sustained combat proved too much for Israel, the IDF must focus on maneuvering quickly and engaging decisively. Israeli firepower is very impressive, but in some ways it masks some limitations.
In response to a question about how Israel could make a peace agreement work that calls for it to return to the 1967 border line, one speaker said that control of the borders is key. Israel has learned lessons from the past—it must keep its presence along the Jordan River because it was disastrous when Israel removed forces from the Philadelphi Corridor following its withdrawal from Gaza.