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columnIsrael at War

Israel’s isolated generals

The Israeli public has made clear that it opposes cutting a deal for the hostages that will enable Hamas to survive the war. Its leaders should listen.

IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with commanders in the Gaza Strip on Dec. 31, 2023. Credit: IDF.
IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with commanders in the Gaza Strip on Dec. 31, 2023. Credit: IDF.
Caroline B. Glick
Caroline B. Glick is the senior contributing editor of Jewish News Syndicate and host of the “Caroline Glick Show” on JNS. She is also the diplomatic commentator for Israel’s Channel 14, as well as a columnist for Newsweek. Glick is the senior fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Center for Security Policy in Washington and a lecturer at Israel’s College of Statesmanship.

Shortly after Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, its sadistic massacre of 1,200 Israelis and kidnap of 246 men, women and children from southern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government declared war on Iran’s Palestinian proxy. The government set four war goals: the military eradication of Hamas; the eradication of Hamas’s civilian regime in the Gaza Strip; the return of all the hostages; and the permanent pacification of Gaza to ensure that it will never pose a threat to Israel again.

Almost immediately thereafter, anonymous “senior IDF sources” began grousing to the media about the government’s war goals. “Sources in the General Staff” have been regularly cited advocating for replacing the goals of the war with others that rule out Hamas’s eradication and the permanent pacification of Gaza.

A few weeks into the war, the Biden administration began insisting that the government set out its vision for postwar Gaza while making no effort to hide what it expects the plan to include: the transfer of power to the terror-infused, Hamas-aligned Palestinian Authority. As Netanyahu hemmed and hawed and delayed his response to avoid a confrontation with the administration, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevy and the other generals hopped on the U.S. bandwagon.

Buttressed by a chorus of retired generals, the sitting generals have insisted on and off the record that the absence of a vision of the day after the war leaves the military directionless. Netanyahu, they gripe, is making it impossible for the IDF to fight strategically.

The generals have things backwards. Israel’s strategic goals of destroying Hamas and securing the release of the hostages are both straightforward. It is the General Staff’s job to set out a plan for achieving them, replete with benchmarks to mark success. By demanding a plan for the day after the war, the General Staff is not asking for further guidance. It is demanding that the war goals be revised.

Last Saturday, the General Staff’s insubordination reached an all-time high. Israeli reporter Ronen Bergman co-authored an article in The New York Times based on the claims of four unnamed generals in the General Staff.

Titled, “In Strategic Bind, Israel Weighs Freeing Hostages Against Destroying Hamas,” Bergman wrote, “After more than 100 days of war, Israel’s limited progress in dismantling Hamas has raised doubts within the military’s high command about the near-term feasibility of achieving the country’s principal wartime objectives: eradicating Hamas and also liberating the Israeli hostages still in Gaza.”

The fact that the IDF is making slower progress than anticipated owes in large part to the intelligence failures that preceded the Hamas invasion. On Oct. 6, the IDF assessed that Hamas had around 160 kilometers (nearly 100 miles) of underground tunnels. Now, after two months of ground (and underground) warfare, the IDF realizes that it was off by around 500%; Hamas’s underground tunnel complex span up to 800 kilometers (500 miles). Obviously, under the circumstances, the ground operation is taking longer than initially anticipated. Rather than roll with the punches and keep slogging forward, Bergman wrote that the slowness of Israel’s advance “has led some commanders to privately express their frustrations over the civilian government’s strategy for Gaza, and led them to conclude that the freedom of more than 100 Israeli hostages still in Gaza can be secured only through diplomatic rather than military means.”

“The dual objectives of freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas are now mutually incompatible, according to interviews with four senior military leaders, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly about their personal opinions,” he wrote.

Bergman is based in Tel Aviv. After telling the world that Israel is incapable of winning, he turned to the Israeli media to share the generals’ message with the public. Speaking on Channel 12, Bergman said it is time for Israel to quit the fight and sue for a deal—any deal—to secure the release of the hostages. Citing the four generals, Bergman proclaimed that defeat is the only option.

Appeasement doesn’t work

The generals’ rank insubordination—and efforts to demoralize the public during a time of war while failing to develop clear benchmarks for victory—comes as no surprise. For the past generation, the General Staff has undergone radical politicization. In successive appointment cycles in the past 30 years, colonels and brigadier generals unwilling to toe the political left’s line have been blocked from appointments to strategically significant postings, and have generally found themselves out of the IDF before reaching the rank of major general.

For a generation, the Holy Grail of the General Staff has been to reject the very concept of victory. The purpose of military campaigns is to secure deterrence, rather than destroy the enemy. The amorphous concept of deterrence has enabled the General Staff to embrace the incongruous claim that appeasement—that is giving the enemy a payoff—can build deterrence. But, of course, if a state seeks to appease its enemy, then it is the state, and not the enemy, that is deterred.

Rejecting the concept of victory is the natural consequence of embracing the left’s paradigm that Israel’s enemies from Iran to Hezbollah to the Palestinians are appeaseable and that their shared strategic goal of annihilating Israel is a bluff. According to this thinking, in Iran, the regime is riven by power struggles between moderates and extremists. And the trick is for the Americans to figure out how to strengthen the moderates by giving the extremists concessions.

Hezbollah, they argue, is deterred by the Lebanese government. Hezbollah won’t go to war because it will make the Lebanese government, which doesn’t want war, angry. And if Hezbollah goes to war over the objections of the government, the government will order the Lebanese Armed Forces to go to war against Hezbollah. This is the U.S. line, and the IDF General Staff has stuck to it through thick and thin since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. The only problem is that it is based on a wilful blindness to two basic realities: First, Hezbollah controls the Lebanese government; and second, Hezbollah controls the LAF.

As for the Palestinians, members of the General Staff, like their fellow leftists, are convinced that all they need is to appease the Palestinians to resolve their conflict with Israel. Give them money or jobs, let them build illegal villages and neighborhoods in commanding positions along highways or adjacent to Israeli cities, as well as villages on both sides of the 1949 Armistice Line, and they will be appeased. Give Hamas-ruled Gaza cash from Qatar and jobs in Israel, and prosperity will trump jihad.

This worldview, which has guided the General Staff for decades, was destroyed completely on Oct. 7. Enemies who seek to annihilate you are by definition undeterrable. Their goal is your total destruction, and the more ingrained the goal, the more obvious the imperative of destroying them becomes.

The government did not make Hamas’s eradication the goal of the war because it sounded good politically. They did so because, after Oct. 7, the existential nature of the Palestinian war against the Jewish state is undeniable. Israel cannot fight to a draw or lose (as the anonymous sources in the General Staff advocate) and long survive. Not only will Hamas rebuild its strength over time and strike again, but strategic diffidence and weakness guarantee future aggression from Hezbollah and Iran that will be orders of magnitude greater than the one-day Holocaust Israel suffered on Oct. 7.

Kerem Border Crossing
Hundreds of Israelis block trucks carrying humanitarian supplies towards the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, Jan. 24, 2024. Photo by Bashi Darshan/TPS.

Demanding an end to humanitarian aid

Notably, all of the General Staff’s paradigms are shared by the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. So it isn’t surprising that a consistent position of the generals is that the United States, rather than the IDF, is the guarantor of Israel’s survival. Accordingly, the generals oppose actions that would limit or even end Israel’s strategic dependence on America. That dependence commits the United States to protect Israel, and that protection will be guaranteed if Israel maintains faith in its appeasement policies towards Israel’s enemies.

The public—and rank-and-file officers and soldiers on the ground in Gaza, along the border with Lebanon, and in Judea and Samaria—are unmoved by the generals’ demoralizing messages. They understand that Israel has no option other than to fight the war until victory, whatever the price. The notion of appeasement-based deterrence died on Oct. 7. In successive opinion polls since then, the Israeli public has made clear that it opposes cutting a deal for the hostages that will enable Hamas to survive the war. They oppose Palestinian statehood, and under no circumstances is the public willing to countenance a P.A. takeover of the Gaza Strip the day after the war.

The public’s unwillingness to accept anything less than victory has placed the General Staff in a bind. Reservists being sent home from the front have reacted not with happiness but with indignation at leaving before victory has been achieved. On Feb. 8, angry reservists are planning to hold a mass demonstration demanding to be permitted to fight to victory down the street from the Prime Minister’s Office.

On Wednesday and Thursday, hundreds of relatives of hostages, mothers of IDF soldiers and other concerned citizens blocked humanitarian aid trucks from entering Gaza through the Kerem Shalom border crossing. These citizens recognize that humanitarian aid is just a euphemism for resupply to Hamas. The government, they say, may need to agree to humanitarian aid to placate the Biden administration, but private citizens are under no such constraints. And given the dire implications of the aid for the war effort, standing idly by while Washington compels Jerusalem to give Hamas a lifeline to remain in the tunnels is nothing short of insane.

The public’s operations are not limited to the domestic realm. A new group, Mothers of IDF Soldiers, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday demanding an end to humanitarian aid to Gaza, arguing that the truckloads of fuel, food, water and medicine endanger the lives of IDF soldiers; is not being distributed to Palestinian civilians; enables Hamas to remain in charge of governing affairs in Gaza; and prolongs the war by giving Hamas terrorists the means to keep fighting from their tunnels and refusing to release the hostages.

Netanyahu, for his part, is not relenting. Nearly every day, he reiterates the war goals and insists that Israel will fight until it achieves all of them. He is demanding that the IDF provide him with benchmarks to measure its progress towards victory.

The generals in charge owe their positions to their full adherence to the strategic paradigms of the United States and the political left. They don’t want to move on. But the unanimity of opinion from the public below and the government above will leave them little choice. They will either get on board and deliver the required victory, or they will eventually be forced to resign and make room for others capable of doing the job.

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